The semantic origins of word order

Marieke Schouwstra*, Henriette de Swart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Where do the different sentence orders in the languages of the world come from? Recently, it has been suggested that there is a basic sentence order, SOV (Subject-Object-Verb), which was the starting point for other sentence orders. Backup for this claim was found in newly emerging languages, as well as in experiments where people are asked to convey simple meanings in improvised gesture production. In both cases, researchers found that the predominant word order is SOV. Recent literature has shown that the pragmatic rule 'Agent first' drives the preference for S initial word order, but this rule does not decide between SOV and SVO. This paper presents experimental evidence for grounding the word order that emerges in gesture production in semantic properties of the message to be conveyed. We focus on the role of the verb, and argue that the preference for SOV word order reported in earlier experiments is due to the use of extensional verbs (e.g. throw). With intensional verbs like think, the object is dependent on the agent's thought, and our experiment confirms that such verbs lead to a preference for SVO instead. We conclude that the meaning of the verb plays a crucial role in the sequencing of utterances in emerging language systems. This finding is relevant for the debate on language evolution, because it suggests that semantics underlies the early formation of syntactic rules. (C) 2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)431-436
Number of pages6
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


  • Gesture studies
  • Word order
  • Language evolution
  • Semantics


Dive into the research topics of 'The semantic origins of word order'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this