Logic and Language

Gerhard Jäger (University of Tübingen): A Bayesian test of the lineage-specificity of word-order correlations

Speaker: Gerhard Jäger (University of Tübingen)
Title: A Bayesian test of the lineage-specificity of word-order correlations
Time: 16:00 - 17:30
Location: KdVI seminar room F3.20

One of the major early achievements of linguistic typology was Greenberg’s (1963) discovery of implicational word order universals. While his work was based on a comparatively small sample of languages, later work, such as (Hawkins, 1983; Dryer, 1992), confirmed the existence of implicational word order universals on the basis of broader data collections.

In a landmark study using modern quantitative, Bayesian comparative methods and data from four language families (Austronesian, Bantu, Indo-European and Uto-Aztecan), Dunn, Greenhill, Levinson, and Gray (2011) established results being in stark contrast to the established view. While the authors did find evidence for word order correlations in many cases, the emerging pictures differed fundamentally between the four families. From this they concluded that word order tendencies are lineage specific rather than universal.

The authors did not explicitly compare their lineage-specific model with a universal model though; they only qualitatively assessed the assumption of universal word-order correlations as not plausible given their findings. In the talk I will present a study addressing this issue via performing a Bayesian model comparison between a universal and a lineage-specific model.

It turns out that there is solid support for universal word-order correlations between features that Dryer (1992) classified as "verb patterners", while other correlations are clearly lineage specific.

The broader methodological point to be made is that linguistic typology can immensely benefit from the tools of modern Bayesian statistics and the phylogenetic comparative method.



Dryer, M. S. (1992). The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language, 68(1), 81–138.
Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S., & Gray, R. D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 473(7345), 79–82.
Greenberg, J. (1963). Some universals of grammar with special reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Universals of language (pp. 73–113). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hawkins, J. A. (1983). Word order universals. London: Academic Press.