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  • Cited by 8
  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: November 2009

21 - On the Reconstruction of ‘Proto-World’ Word Order


Motivating a ‘Proto-World’ Word Order of SOV

It is a truism that hypotheses about the evolution of cognitive faculties are problematic in ways that those about purely physical features are not. The language faculty, as an evolutionary emergent trait, multiplies such problems by an order of magnitude. As a result, claims about the origins and evolutionary history of this faculty tend to be underlain by a host of assumptions, any or all of which could well turn out to be ill-founded. This chapter is no exception. It takes as a starting point a half dozen or so underlying assumptions drawn from the fields of language typology and language evolution, and ranging from quite well accepted to highly controversial. Its purpose is to argue that if these assumptions are correct, then this conclusion follows:

(1)The earliest human language had rigid SOV (i.e. subject-object-verb) word order.

The first assumption is the following:

(2)SOV order predominates among the world's languages today.

Earlier studies (e.g. Tomlin 1986) posited a roughly equal percentage of SOV and SVO languages. However, Dryer (1989) showed that such conclusions arise from a faulty sampling method. It is true, as Dryer noted, that if one simply counts languages, one does arrive at the conclusion that the two structural types are equally common. But accidents of human history conspire to underplay the predominance of SOV. For example, the great majority of languages in sub-Saharan Africa belong to a single family – the Niger-Kordofanian – and the great majority of these languages are SVO.