Old Word Order

The ability to communicate is clearly a prerequisite for cooperation and humans are a cooperative, social species. The evolution of language puts us at the top of the tree for group actions. The ubiquitous ownership of smartphones is taking that instant communication way beyond earshot.

At some point in our past, our ancestors started to formulate words for objects and actions instead of using grunts and screeches. So an interesting question arises as to what was the word order used in the earliest language? For example, dogs are quick to understand our directions, although following them may be something else entirely. So we attract our dog's attention, hold up a ball, throw it and shout, “fetch,” and Fido rushes off after the ball.

Here our order is that the our dog (the subject, S) is established when we make eye contact. The ball (the object, O) is waved around to establish what we are interested in and we shout “Fetch” our verb, V, as the only spoken part of the sentence. Our word order here is SOV. But we also have been known to gaze into those big eyes and say, “Fido, find the ball” with great enthusiasm. In this case it’s SVO.

Of course none of our dogs are pernickety academics and so have no desire to question our grammar or indeed get into a discussion of language, but the question remains: what was the word order of the earliest spoken language?

Gell-Mann and Ruhlen in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Science have sorted this out for us (1). The short answer is SOV. The study of old languages indicates that this is the common syntax. When changes did occur, they tended to go from SOV to SVO rather than VOS or VSO, the latter two being very rare.

My dog won’t mind as long as I keep throwing the ball. Editors aren’t so compliant.

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/10/04/1113716108

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