Basic word order and Uniform Information Density

This week we had a talk by visiting PhD student Luke Maurits about basic word order.  The distributions of basic word orders around the world (Subject-Verb-Object, Subject-Object-Verb etc. ) has been the focus of much attention.  The overwhelming majority of languages have SOV and SVO orders, with fewer having VSO and very small numbers having OVS and OSV.  In order of frequency, this is:


A standard approach has been to assume that this ordering reflects an ordering of functionality:  Somehow, SOV order is more functional or efficient or intuitive than OSV.  However, Maurits points out that the literature on diachronic change opposes this view.  Languages often change from SOV to VSO or SVO over time, but rarely the other way around (see diagram below).

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