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Word Order of Languages
Word order in linguistics typically refers to the order of subject (S), verb (V) and object (O) in a sentence. For example, in English the word order of a typical sentence is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). To English speakers this seems obviously the only logical arrangement. Yet many languages do have a different word order.
The term word order could mean something broader but so far this is the extent of its meaning. Various language analysts have investigated the varieties of word order in the languages of the world, starting in 1963 with Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University. In particular, they have focused on the extremely limited range of variation of word order among languages. For example, Russell Tomlin investigate the basic word order of a sample of 402 languages and found the vast majority fall in two categories, as the table below shows.
|Word Order Distribution of Languages|
|Basic Word Order||Proportion of |
Tomlin disagreed with the samples of languages used in the previously published distributions of word orders. He attempted to choose a representative sample. There is of course major problem of what is meant by representative. There are perhaps six thousand extant languages. Would a representative sample treat a language having only a few thousand speakers the same as one having a billion or so speaker? Another concept of a distribution would be based upon the total speakers. The basis for the selection of the sample might be to estimate what is the probability of a randomly selected speaker speaking a language with the SVO word order or any of the other possibilities? Tomlin's sample seems to be some compromise between treating any language as being a legitimate linguistic observation and weighting the sample toward the major languages in terms of the number of speakers.
In the above table the square brackets around Verb and Object reflects that usually these two are bound into a substructure.
The salient result is that most languages are either SOV or SVO. Nevertheless there are working languages using the most of the other word orders. An example of a OVS language is Hixkaryana, a language spoken in Amazonia by a Carib tribal group. There is some indication that a language called Warao spoken in Venezuela is of the OSV type.
Tomlin gives a cogent explanation for the distribution of languages among the word order types. He enunciates three principles which go a long ways toward explaining the relative abundance of the word order type.
(To be continued.)
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