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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.

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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


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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

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    Supplementary Information

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

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