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Linguistic arrow of time

November 6, 2011
Picture by Industrius (Wikipedia) – Human Languages Map


Recent work in linguistics strongly suggests that almost all of the 5000-odd current human languages may have been derived from a single ancient proto-language. In a fascinating statistical study of the syntactical structure of human languages, Nobel-prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann from the Santa Fe Institute along with linguist Merritt Ruhlen from Stanford University conclude that the basic word-order in this proto-language would most certainly have been SOV (Subject-Object-Verb).

Every language has a syntax that determines the basic word-order of meaningful sentences. For example, the authors illustrate the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) ordering of modern English with the sentence – “the man (S) killed (V) the bear (O).” There are six possible word-orders (SOV, SVO, VSO, VOS, OSV, OVS), out of which only three are commonly found (SOV, SVO, VSO). SOV is the most common order, found in German, Hindi, Japanese, Persian and Tamil, followed by SVO that accounts for languages such as Chinese, English, Greek, Hebrew and Swahili. VSO is found in languages like Irish, Welsh, Tagalog and Maori.

Archeological evidence points to the sudden appearance of strikingly modern behaviour in humans around 50,000 years ago in the form of sophisticated tools and art like painting, sculpture and engravings. A possible reason for this could be the development of a fully modern human language, the proto-language that eventually gave rise to all the current languages.

Gell-Mann and Ruhler analyzed the distribution of word-orders in a sample of 2,135 languages, classified into seven major families. They conclude that five of them (Congo-Saharan, Indo-Pacific, Australian, Dene-Caucasian, Nostratic-Amerind) were originally SOV, one (Khoisan) must have been either SOV or SVO, and another (Austric) was SVO. This strongly favours the proto-language being SOV. The extant SOV languages have apparently not changed their structure since their origin.

Some languages permit more than one word-order. Russian, for example, can have all of the six possible orders, although its basic order is SVO. The authors looked at 125 different languages that have two competing word-orders, and found that the most common combination was SOV/SVO, followed by SVO/VSO. They propose a linguistic arrow of time, where languages primarily evolve from SOV to SVO to VSO (or VOS).

Specific sub-families of languages like the Indo-European, Anatolian, Uralic, Nostratic, Dravidian and Afro-Asiatic were analyzed in detail and shown to most likely have a SOV origin, accounting for changes occuring due to the influence of other languages in geographic proximity. For example, almost all of the numerous languages from various families used in India have a SOV structure.

The Amerind family contains languages with all the six possible orders. Even here, all the branches have atleast some SOV languages. Further, sub-families like the Andean and Macro-Carib contain mostly SOV languages, along with a few rare OVS and OSV languages. No other word-order occurs in these families. This suggests that the rare OVS and OSV orders derive directly from the original SOV (unlike the VSO/VOS orders which derived from SVO that in turn derived from SOV).

Analysis of the Austronesian branch of the Austric family further revealed that some languages may revert back to SVO order from the VSO/VOS order, and that they can oscillate back and forth between the two word orders.


Gell-Mann, M., & Ruhlen, M. (2011). The origin and evolution of word order Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (42), 17290-17295 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1113716108


From → Statistics

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