Letter | Published:

Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals

Nature volume 473, pages 7982 (05 May 2011) | Download Citation


Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language1,2. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases3,4,5, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constraints on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework6. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that—at least with respect to word order—cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    The Atoms of Language (Basic Books, 2001)

  2. 2.

    Lectures on Government and Binding (Foris, 1981)

  3. 3.

    in Universals of Grammar (ed. ) 73–113 (MIT Press, 1963)

  4. 4.

    in Language Typology and Syntactic Description Vol. I Clause Structure 2nd edn (ed. ) 61–131 (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

  5. 5.

    in Language Universals (eds , & ) 54–78 (Oxford University Press, 2009)

  6. 6.

    Evolutionary linguistics. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 37, 219–234 (2008)

  7. 7.

    Knowledge of Language: its Nature, Origin and Use (Praeger, 1986)

  8. 8.

    The child’s trigger experience—degree-0 learnability. Behav. Brain Sci. 12, 321–334 (1989)

  9. 9.

    The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language 68, 81–138 (1992)

  10. 10.

    & The comparative method in anthropology. Curr. Anthropol. 35, 549–564 (1994)

  11. 11.

    in Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology (ed. ) (Oxford University Press, 2010)

  12. 12.

    in Quantative Linguistics: An International Handbook (eds , & ) 554–578 (Mouton de Gruyter, 2005)

  13. 13.

    , & Bayesian estimation of ancestral character states on phylogenies. Syst. Biol. 53, 673–684 (2004)

  14. 14.

    Ethnologue: Languages of the World 15th edn (SIL International, 2005)

  15. 15.

    , & Language phylogenies reveal expansion pulses and pauses in Pacific settlement. Science 323, 479–483 (2009)

  16. 16.

    & Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature 426, 435–439 (2003)

  17. 17.

    Comparative Bantu Vol. 2 (Gregg International, 1971)

  18. 18.

    & Farmers and their languages: the first expansions. Science 300, 597–603 (2003)

  19. 19.

    American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America 133–138 (Oxford University Press, 1997)

  20. 20.

    et al. Evaluating the farming/language dispersal hypothesis with genetic variation exhibited by populations in the Southwest and Mesoamerica. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 6759–6764 (2010)

  21. 21.

    & Bayesian analysis of correlated evolution of discrete characters by reversible-jump Markov chain Monte Carlo. Am. Nat. 167, 808–825 (2006)

  22. 22.

    , & An Indo-European classification, a lexicostatistical experiment. Trans. Am. Phil. Soc. 82, 1–132 (1992)

  23. 23.

    , & The Austronesian basic vocabulary database: from bioinformatics to lexomics. Evol. Bioinform. 4, 271–283 (2008)

  24. 24.

    Bantu language trees reflect the spread of farming across sub-Saharan Africa: a maximum-parsimony analysis. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 269, 793–799 (2002)

  25. 25.

    , , & The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (Max Planck Digital Library, 2008)

  26. 26.

    Approximate Bayes factors and accounting for model uncertainty in generalised linear models. Biometrika 83, 251–266 (1996)

  27. 27.

    & Noam Chomsky’s minimalist program and the philosophy of mind. An interview. Syntax 1, 19–36 (1998)

  28. 28.

    , & Explaining the linguistic diversity of Sahul using population models. PLoS Biol. 7, e1000241 (2009)

  29. 29.

    & The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behav. Brain Sci. 32, 429–492 (2009)

Download references


We thank M. Liberman for comments on our initial results and F. Jordan and G. Reesink for comments on drafts of this paper. L. Campbell, J. Hill, W. Miller and R. Ross provided and coded the Uto-Aztecan lexical data.

Author information


  1. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Post Office Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands

    • Michael Dunn
    •  & Stephen C. Levinson
  2. Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, Kapittelweg 29, 6525 EN Nijmegen, The Netherlands

    • Michael Dunn
    •  & Stephen C. Levinson
  3. Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

    • Simon J. Greenhill
    •  & Russell D. Gray
  4. Computational Evolution Group, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

    • Simon J. Greenhill


  1. Search for Michael Dunn in:

  2. Search for Simon J. Greenhill in:

  3. Search for Stephen C. Levinson in:

  4. Search for Russell D. Gray in:


R.D.G. and M.D. conceived and designed the study. S.J.G., R.D.G. and M.D. provided lexical data and phylogenetic trees. M.D. coded word-order data, and conducted the phylogenetic comparative analyses with S.J.G. All authors were involved in discussion and interpretation of the results. All authors contributed to the writing with S.C.L. and M.D. having leading roles; M.D., R.D.G. and S.J.G. produced the Supplementary Information.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Dunn.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    The file contains Supplementary Data, Methods and Analysis, Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends, Supplementary Results and additional references.

About this article

Publication history







By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.