It has been assumed that word-order develops in accordance with a set of universal rules, applicable to all languages.
But a new study has concluded that languages do not primarily follow innate rules of language processing in the brain. Rather, sentence structure is determined by the historical context in which a language develops.
Linguists wanted to understand how languages have become so diverse and what constraints language evolution is subject to.
To this end, they searched for recurring patterns in language structure. In spite of the enormous variety of sounds and sentence structure patterns, linguistic chaos actually stays within certain limits: individual language patterns repeat themselves.
For example, in some languages, the verb is placed at the beginning of the sentence, while with others it is placed in the middle or at the end of the sentence. The formation of words in a given language also follows certain principles.
Michael Dunn and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics analysed 301 languages from four major language families: Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan.
They focused on the order of the different sentence parts, such as "object-verb", "preposition-noun", "genitive- noun" or "relative clause-noun", and whether their position in the sentence influenced the other parts of the sentence.
In this way, the researchers wanted to find out whether the position of the verb has other syntactic consequences: if the verb precedes the object for example ("The player kicks the ball"), is the preposition simultaneously placed before the noun ("into the goal")? Such a pattern is observed in many languages, but is it an inevitable feature of how languages develop?
"Our study shows that different processes occur in different language families. The evolution of language does not follow one universal set of rules," said Dunn.
For example, the "verb-object" pattern influences the "preposition-noun" pattern in the Austronesian and Indo-European languages, but not in the same way, and not in the other two language families.
The researchers never found the same pattern in word-order across all language families.
"Our study suggests that cultural evolution has much more influence on language development than universal factors. Language structure is apparently not so much biologically determined as it is shaped by its ancestry," said Levinson.