A Noisy-Channel Account of Crosslinguistic Word-Order Variation

TitleA Noisy-Channel Account of Crosslinguistic Word-Order Variation
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsGibson, E., Piantadosi S. T., Brink K., Bergen L., Lim E., & Saxe R.
JournalPsychological Science
Pagination1079 - 1088
Date Published07/2013

The distribution of word orders across languages is highly nonuniform, with subject-verb-object (SVO) and subjectobject-verb (SOV) orders being prevalent. Recent work suggests that the SOV order may be the default in human language. Why, then, is SVO order so common? We hypothesize that SOV/SVO variation can be explained by language users’ sensitivity to the possibility of noise corrupting the linguistic signal. In particular, the noisy-channel hypothesis predicts a shift from the default SOV order to SVO order for semantically reversible events, for which potential ambiguity arises in SOV order because two plausible agents appear on the same side of the verb. We found support for this prediction in three languages (English, Japanese, and Korean) by using a gesture-production task, which reflects word-order preferences largely independent of native language. Other patterns of crosslinguistic variation (e.g., the prevalence of case marking in SOV languages and its relative absence in SVO languages) also straightforwardly follow from the noisy-channel hypothesis.

Short TitlePsychol Sci