[aside that some may find interesting]
Perhaps some of you may remember the interest, in the 1960’s-1980’s or so, of trying to teach language to animals (usually chimpanzees). There were several projects that tried this with dolphins, in various ways. Researchers at the University of Hawaii did a project that taught some simple language rudiments to two bottlenosed dolphns. Sentences ranged from two to five words long.
One of the explicit questions they raised was: Is the word order arbitrary? That is, can we define an artificial language with any rules we like about word order, and can the dolphins be taught that? Thus, two simple grammars were defined, having differing word orders. One grammar was taught to one dolphin, and the other grammar was taught to the other dolphin.
A typical 3-word sentence was, for example, “Ball fetch hoop”, which meant “Fetch the ball to the hoop”. Clearly, word order matters: The sentence “Hoop fetch ball” would mean “Fetch the hoop to the ball”. The dolphin was able to understand sentences of this format and perform them correctly. In these sentences, the order was: <direct object> <verb> <indirect object>.
The other dolphin was taught similar sentences, but with different word order: “Hoop ball fetch” meant “Fetch the ball to the hoop”. Whereas “Ball hoop fetch” meant “Fetch the hoop to the ball”. Note that the first word is the destination, and the second word is the object to be fetched. That dolphin was able to understand those sentences and get them right. In these sentences, the order was: <indirect object> <direct object> <verb>
Both dolphins were able to learn the meaning of word order in their respective “languages”. (Note that all sentences were imperative, and lacked a <subject> word.)
The research report was published in Cognition magazine in 1984.
Herman, Richards and Wolz. “Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins.” Cognition, Volume 16, Issue 2, March 1984, Pages 129–219. (Link gets you a page with the abstract. I am one of the people listed in the acknowledgements near the end of the page.) To see the entire article, you need to send $$$.
Another link to an very lengthy and technical article about dolphin cognition: What Laboratory Research has Told Us about Dolphin Cognition (PDF!)
Link to The Dolphin Institute, successor to Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, where this research was done.
[/aside that some may find interesting]