Verb-first languages fuel debate about language variation

Syntax has implications for language, psychology

Across human languages, there are six possible ways for the subject, object and verb of a sentence to be ordered.

The most common word order is subject-first, which accounts for the majority of known languages.

It is less common to put the verb first in sentences. Verb-initial sentence structure is only found in about nine per cent of the world’s languages.

U of M department of linguistics instructor Julie Doner would like to develop a project studying the nature of verb-initial languages. She specializes in comparative syntax research, which means comparing sentence structure across different languages.

Verb-initial languages independently share several features beyond basic sentence structure.

“They seem to have lots of things in common other than word order,” Doner said. “Having word order patterns, that’s not so surprising, but having other things in common, that’s pretty surprising.”

Found all over the world, from North America to Polynesia, and even in the Celtic languages of Europe, part of what makes these similarities so unexpected is the fact that they are shared by language families with no known historical descent from, or contact with, each other.

One property shared by verb-initial languages is that they appear to lack infinitive clauses. An example of this type of clause appears in the sentence, “I want to eat chocolate,” where “to eat chocolate” is the infinitive clause.

A shared property seen in verb-initial languages that is of particular interest to Doner is that they seem to lack the verb “have.” Instead, they express possession of an object with a prepositional phrase such as “it is on me” or “it is with me.”

Because so many unrelated languages share very specific properties in common, Doner said it is likely that the similarities exist for more fundamental reasons, such as human psychology or the nature of language production.

Among linguists, there are generally two streams of thought explaining why variation exists.

Noam Chomsky, an American theoretical linguist, proposed that there is a genetically determined blueprint for language called universal grammar that is programmed into the human brain. This theory might explain why all human languages have certain traits in common, but it does not account for their differences.

Linguists who believe in universal grammar might explain the differences between languages with what is known as the theory of parameters. This theory claims that the brain has several settings called parameters that activate or deactivate depending on an individual’s language exposure.

However, this theory has been criticized because the number of parameters needed to account for the full variation of human language is thought to be too many for them all to have been built-in at birth.

For example, Doner explained that the dialectal variation in northern Italian alone was found to require hundreds of parameters.

Another stream of thought suggests that there is no innate biological component to language, and that similarities between languages are present due to extralinguistic factors like human psychology. This means that differences between languages are attributed to the fact that there is no underlying structure.

The goal, then, of Doner’s verb-initial research would be to gain insight regarding the variation of human languages.

“What I would like to do is get a big sample of verb-initial languages,” Doner explained.

She added that she would then “double check that all of these patterns do hold that people have noticed, because they are probably looking at a different sample of languages, so, looking at yet another sample of languages would further strengthen the observations.”

“And then, [use] that to answer a theoretical question about how languages vary,” she said.