Monday, October 15, 2018

Why Subject-Verb-Object?

We may forget that many languages use a different word order. Wikipedia tells us:

There are six theoretically possible basic word orders for the transitive sentence. The overwhelming majority of the world's languages are either subject–verb–object (SVO) or subject–object–verb (SOV), with a much smaller but still significant portion using verb–subject–object (VSO) word order. The remaining three arrangements are exceptionally rare, with verb–object–subject(VOS) being slightly more common than object–subject–verb (OSV), and object–verb–subject (OVS) being significantly more rare than the two preceding orders

A paper by Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen, building on work in comparative linguistics, asserts that the distribution[clarification needed] of word order types in the world's languages was originally SOV. The paper compares a survey of 2135 languages with a "presumed phylogenetic tree" of languages, concluding that changes in word order tend to follow particular pathways, and the transmission of word order is to a great extent vertical (i.e. following the phylogenetic tree of ancestry) as opposed to horizontal (areal, i.e. by diffusion). According to this analysis, the most recent ancestor of[all?] currently known languages was spoken recently enough to trace the whole evolutionary path of word order in most cases.

Still, we may wonder why subject-verb-object is the standard in our culture.


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