Crosslinguistic word order variation reflects evolutionary pressures of dependency and information locality


Languages vary considerably in syntactic structure. About 40% of the world’s languages have subject–verb–object order, and about 40% have subject–object–verb order. Extensive work has sought to explain this word order variation across languages. However, the existing approaches are not able to explain coherently the frequency distribution and evolution of word order in individual languages. We propose that variation in word order reflects different ways of balancing competing pressures of dependency locality and information locality, whereby languages favor placing elements together when they are syntactically related or contextually informative about each other. Using data from 80 languages in 17 language families and phylogenetic modeling, we demonstrate that languages evolve to balance these pressures, such that word order change is accompanied by change in the frequency distribution of the syntactic structures that speakers communicate to maintain overall efficiency. Variability in word order thus reflects different ways in which languages resolve these evolutionary pressures. We identify relevant characteristics that result from this joint optimization, particularly the frequency with which subjects and objects are expressed together for the same verb. Our findings suggest that syntactic structure and usage across languages coadapt to support efficient communication under limited cognitive resources.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America