Why does syntax vary with language?

So, languages have different rules for what order the different word types (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) should be placed in, and/or don’t have all the same word types, even when those languages share a common root. Considering that humans process information in the same basic way, why is this?

For example, english uses the sequence of adjective then noun, while spanish uses noun then adjective, and others (presumably) use a completely different sequence. I can easily understand how different sounds-for-concepts (aka words) would evolve, but not why the order of those words would change.

Why would one expect languages to have the same syntax, to begin with? One might as well ask why they have different vocabulary. The underlying information processing is the same, but that in no way implies that the words or their arrangement must be.

The OP is asking two different questions. Chronos got one. The brain is remarkable because it can process information in a zillion different ways. Any one can work. There is no such thing as humans processing information in the same basic way.

The other question is harder. Probably the best evidence we have is from the ways that modern cultures have created creoles and pidgins, simplified blends of languages used by traders to communicate that sometimes grow into languages taught as native languages. These strip the original languages down as much as possible to create understanding. But once established they can develop the same evolutionary features as native languages. They might go off in very different directions, just as animals separated from their place of origin can evolve to have new features.

Generic disclaimer: Almost everything about creoles is controversial, and so is everything about the evolution of early language. Nobody really knows why languages have the features they do.

I think it’s easy to see how “pater” could evolve into “father”. It’s not as easy to see how a language evolves to shifting the adjective in front of the word it’s describing instead of after it.

That said, I remember just enough from my Latin class to be dangerous. IIRC, the word order doesn’t really matter in Latin because which word is the subject and which is the object, and which adjective describes which verb, depends on the word endings. So I could see how Latin could evolve into languages that simplify the endings and use word order to determine subject and object. Some could put the adjective in front of the noun, and some after. This is just my WAG, though.

This is an oversimplification for both languages. While Spanish typically places the adjective after the noun, it can sometimes be placed before, and the position can indicate a different meaning. For example, mi viejo amigo indicates “my friend for a long time,” while mi amigo viejo means “my friend who is old.”

While English almost always places the adjective first, in poetic usage it can come after, e.g. “river deep and mountain high.”

Or in very utilitarian use, such as military specs:
Rope, hemp, 50’
Armor, personal, kevlar, 1 suit
Armor, vehicular, steel, humvee, for use on

Et cetera.

An article about changing word order:

I don’t know how generally it’s accepted.

[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]

One reason syntax has to differ between languages is in the way tense is expressed.
In traditional Malay verbs are not modified or inflected to show past, present or future.
If you want to go somewhere in the future, you say “I will go” in English.
In old Malay or Bahasa Indonesia, you have to say “I go tomorrow” or “I go later” to show
a future movement.

< I can’t really think of the right terms to google this right now, but >

IIRC from an abstract study of how information could be structured, there are a few dozen possible language “types”. And, almost all of the languages of the world can be grouped into a handful of these types.

Furthermore, I remember a study where they tried to teach young children a language constructed specially to use one of the unused sentence structures. The children struggled to learn this language (compared to real languages) and the mistakes they made were in frequently getting the sentence order wrong; falling back to one of the patterns real languages use.

I will try to find cites for all this stuff. In the meantime I just wanted to say that not everyone would agree with the premise of the OP.

I think you’re referring to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. It’s not as widely accepted as it once was.

Often certain aspects of word order (verb efore direct object? adjective before noun?, etc.) go together, because there is a deeper concept – “head” – which includes them all. Look up “head” on the linguistic sense for more on this.

But “word order” is complicated by the fact that the very concepts of what is a “direct object,” etc. can vary from language to language – see “agentive” vs. “ergative” for more on this.

Your question about how any one language would evolve to change some basic syntax rules is an interesting one. Here are two observations:

  1. Things like basic vocabulary evolve, but don’t usually shift too much – the roots of a language are evident in its words. However, syntax is more susceptible to being altered to conform to a “sprachbund” – that is, a set of languages which come to share resemblances due to interaction caused by geographic proximity, even though they have different linguistic origins. For example, Romanian has taken on aspects of Slavic syntax (IIRC), even though it evolved from Latin.

  2. Often a language or language family tends to go through a cycle, which typically takes at least a thousand years, from being more “synthetic” to being more “analytical”, and then back again. (If I’m using the wrong terms, please correct me.) That is, it tends to gradually shift from, say, the word order being quite loose, and so grammar depends on suffixes and the like (inflections, etc.) – as in Latin – to the word order being tighter, because grammar depends more on position in the sentence (e.g., English, and to a slightly lesser extent the modern Romance languages) – and then slowly back again. One set of Latin suffixes for the future tense, for example, evolved from a two-verb phrase using the verb meaning “to have.” Conversely, there are French patois which treat certain standard French verb endings as stand-alone words.

Scientists wonder whether the brain is hard-wired with any grammatical preferences. So far, the jury is out. However, there’s no doubt that a normal baby of any race can learn any language: there is no evidence of racial/human-genetic variation in the ability to learn different languages, including the grammar rules and being able to hear and utter all the language’s sounds, and differentiate between them. During childhood we lose this plasticity.

According to either Denett or Erlich, all known creoles have one thing in common: they use “double negatives” rather than logic rules for negation. That is, they’re like Spanish, where, once you go negative, you stay negative, and two negatives don’t cancel out as they do in English. This suggests that perhaps the brain has a natural bias towards this language rule (a semantic rather than syntactic one). Of course, it might also be that this isn’t due to the human brain, but rather that the underlying implementation might be simpler in one case, so it would tend to arise naturally in any sufficiently powerful set of brains, especially in an inchoate language like a creole. [Note: Wikipedia says there is no language feature common to all creoles. I’ll have to double check my source, and maybe it’s been disproved.]

BTW, pidgins and creoles are usually distinguished in that creoles have grammar but pidgins don’t. Creoles tend to develop from pidgins in cases where none of the parent languages “wins”, so successive generations grow their own new language from the words and sounds of the parent languages.

They did that to simplify cataloguing.

Rope - hemp -1"
Rope - hemp -2"
Rope - hemp -4"
Rope nylon
Rope straw

It keeps all the items that belong to each group together and makes them much easier to find. This was long long before the advent of computers.

Isn’t this just a hypothesis, rather than an established fact? (Even though it is often stated as fact.)

I meant that we lose the ability to easily learn to hear and utter various difficult or difficult to differentiate sounds (I admit I wasn’t clear about that). That article is about the ability to learn language at all. No doubt they’re related, but not the same claim.


Well, futher reading of that article shows that even the claim that children learn languages more easily than adults is controversial. Sometimes, scientists seem to be afraid to admit that they have noses on their faces, simply because everyone seems to think they do, and everyone must be wrong. :wink:

Wow, some great information, all. JKelly has a good explanation. Wendell’s cite, however, described the process (in dry, technical-term-laden language) fairly clearly.

For those that don’t want to read the whole article (and who can blame you), here’s a summary of the process. I’ll use the abbreviations S, V, and O to refer to subject, verb, and object words, respectively. [ol]
[li]Language starts with word order A (usually SOV) and order B being acceptable though less common (e.g. limited to: specific fields of study, particular venues (plays, poetry, legal documents, etc.), and the like)[/li][li] Order B becomes as common and equally accepted as order A this stage is referred to as “free word order”. According to the study some the languages at this stage are: Tagalog, Tongan, Assyrian, and Lebanese (eastern arabic) are at this stage[/li][li] Order B becomes the dominant pattern, though order A may still be used in certain situations (basically the reverse of step 1)[/li][/ol]

The specifics of how a language moves from one step to another are (apparently) still poorly understood, if at all.

[Aside] I did a double take when I saw the authorship of that paper. Murray Gell-Mann is best known for inventing the quark model of nucleons & baryons in physics, and won the Nobel Prize in Physics for that work. I had no idea that he was thinking about linguistics these days, though perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.