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


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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Figure 1: Two word-order features plotted onto maximum clade credibility trees of the four language families.
Figure 2: Summary of evolutionary dependencies in word order for four language families.
Figure 3: The transition probabilities between states leading to object–verb and adposition–noun alignments in Austronesian and Indo-European.


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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Correspondence to Michael Dunn.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The file contains Supplementary Data, Methods and Analysis, Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends, Supplementary Results and additional references. (PDF 1188 kb)

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Dunn, M., Greenhill, S., Levinson, S. et al. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature 473, 79–82 (2011).

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