Gestures reveal universal word order, regardless of language

By Ed Yong | June 30, 2008 5:00 pm

If you picture a woman twisting a doorknob, all the elements of this brief event show up in your mind – the woman, the twisting action of her hand and the doorknob. But as I describe this scene and as you read it, the players are mentioned in a very strict order. The subject (the woman) comes first followed by the verb (twisting), and the object (the doorknob) holds up the rear.

Signlanguage.jpgThese word orders are one of the most fundamental aspects of any language and one of the earliest that young children pick up on. The Subject-Verb-Object  order of English (SVO) is typical of many languages including French and Spanish. Other tongues like Japanese, Korean and Turkish use a different SOV order, where the object precedes the verb ( “woman doorknob twist”). Chinese uses both forms depending on the verb, and some scholars believed that it is returning to its roots as an SOV language, after a stint as an SVO one.

Now, a group of psychologists have discovered that the way that words are ordered in our languages has little effect on their sequence in our minds. Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago found that people who are asked to describe events with only hand-gestures, they used the SOV order of Japanese and Turkish, regardless of the conventions of their mother tongue.

Give me a sign

Together with Dutch, Turkish and Singaporean colleagues, Goldin-Meadow tested 40 adults, including equal numbers of English, Turkish, Spanish and Mandarin speakers. They watched short vignettes of everyday actions and were asked to describe them – aloud at first, and then using only their hands. All the vignettes portrayed mundane activities, of the sort that children talk about when they start to learn languages, such as “girl gives flower to man” or “duck moves to wheelbarrow”.


Goldin-Meadow asked another group of linguistically diverse volunteers to describe the same vignettes using a set of transparent pictures that depicted line drawings of the various objects (girls, wheelbarrows etc.) and the actions (waving, moving etc.). They had to reconstruct the event by stacking the transparencies onto a peg, a task that, unlike the gesture assignment, has no communicative purpose.

As expected, the English and Spanish speakers used the subject-verb-object word orders that are typical of their native languages, while the Turkish speakers placed the objects in front of the verbs, as is customary in theirs. The Chinese speakers used the SVO form for actions that happened in the same place, but the SOV form for those that involved some sort of physical movement.

However, when their lips were sealed and their hands spoke for them, all of them used the same SOV word order (“you mouse click”). Even the English and Spanish speakers, who are so accustomed to SVO rules, inverted their verbs and their objects when they used their hands. And the same thing happened when they stacked transparencies.


The fundamental order

So what is it about the SOV order that makes it so universal outside the spoken tongue? It’s certainly not an intrinsic property of hand communication, for American Sign Language uses the same SVO word order that English does. Nor is it even specific to communication, as the transparency task showed. Instead, Goldin-Meadow suggests that SOV represents a natural and fundamental sequence for representing events used by our brains.

She admits that you might expect the verb, which frames the event, to take pole position. Certainly in the gesture task, the verb gesture (be it raising a hand to a mouth or shutting an invisible lid) provides the context that allows you to distinguish between gestures for similar items, like a glass or a box.

Instead, the verb is relegated to the end, and Goldin-Meadow thinks that this is because objects are more easily represented in the brain than actions. They exist in their own right, while actions depend to some extent on the relationships they create between different objects. The upshot is that it might be less mentally challenging for people to first highlight the objects involved in an event, before describing the actions that link them. That’s a bit speculative, but there is plenty of other evidence that the SOV order is indeed the fundamental one.

For a start, if a new language emerges without any external influences, it uses an SOV order. Over the last 70 years, the deaf members of Israel’s al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe have spontaneously developed their own sign language. In the space of a single generation, the newly born tongue assumed a strict grammatical structure, and one that adhered to SOV.

In fact, deaf children all over the world tend to invent their own communicative gestures if their parents don’t teach them sign language themselves. And in every case, from America to China, the object paves the way for the verb. As languages become more complex and more popular, they may lose their original SOV order as various pressures compete to shape its structure, including the need for clarity, efficiency or even interest. And as cultures speaking different languages interact, one word order may overwhelm another for reasons completely unrelated to the languages themselves.

Goldin-Meadow’s fascinating work challenges the idea that the language we speak affects they way we think and see the world, even when our lips are sealed. This idea – the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has been supported by some studies and decried by others, but this new research suggests that at the very least, order that words are represented in the brain remains resolute in the face of linguistic influences. If anything, the influence goes the other way, with the fundamental word order shaping the properties of emerging languages.

Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0801328105


Comments (16)

  1. derek

    I hadn’t realised there were only two really common types: I had expected languages to come in more variety than that.
    So, are SOV languages Reverse Polish? :-)

  2. funkotron

    It seems like if you are gesturing to explain it, you are basically acting and recreating the event. In that case, in order to pretend to do the action, you need to pretend to have the object. So if it is necessary to pretend to have the object, then you might as well spend time making the object first. You don’t need to pretend to do the verb to pretend to have the object.
    This seems to be more of a statement regarding how we act things out, rather than how our brains order information.

  3. It seems like if you are gesturing to explain it, you are basically acting and recreating the event. In that case, in order to pretend to do the action, you need to pretend to have the object.

    That’s probably why the study used transparencies stacked on a peg as well, to get past the pantomime aspect you describe here.

  4. ngong

    Derek…you can find every possible arrangement in various parts of the world, including “Yoda-speak” (VOS) in parts of the Amazon. But SVO and SOV account for better than 80% of all languages.

  5. Jeremy

    the Polynesian languages use VOS and VSO almost interchangeably. There’s a word which goes in between the subject and object to indicate which is first.

  6. Another good review. But I think you are being overly kind to the Sapir-Whorf theory – it has been supported by some studies and decried by others – but the studies that support it seem outdated to this non-professional, all the recent stuff I’ve seen increasingly suggests the theory is basically wrong.

  7. funktron

    Warren, when they used transparencies, they use the order of their language, not the SOV order they are claiming to show is fundamental. Or at least that is how I read the post, I re-read it and it is a bit ambiguous.

  8. Nope, both the transparency and gesture experiments found the same SOV order. Sorry if that was ambiguous. Will change when I’m not at an airport computer terminal with annoying keyboard layout.

  9. CLM

    Scottish Gaelic and Irish use VSO. Verb Subject Object. twist woman doorknob. Though it’s a little more complicated in Scottish Gaelic. There is no present tense of verbs except for ‘to be’, so you have to use a verbal noun. Tha boireannach a’ tiondaidh gnob an dorais. (Is woman twisting knob of the door). This sounds like a question in English. Which we’d translate as ‘The woman is twisting the doorknob’.

  10. it might be less mentally challenging for people to first highlight the objects involved in an event, before describing the actions that link them.

    This is what I was thinking as well. I’ve used reverse polish calculators (“2 3 +” instead of “2 + 3”) for a long time, partly because in High School it cut down on the number of people borrowing my calculator, but also because it felt easier to assemble the numbers I was going to deal with, and then decide what to do with them.
    I’ll also add that while Russian favors SVO, it’s also flexible, in that word order can be changed for emphasis. E.g., “On poshol v teatr” is “He went to the theater”, whereas “On v teatr poshol” (he to the theater went”) is closer to “He went to the theater (not the bakery)”.

  11. So how common is the word order reversal in Russian? The paper mentions that word order is mostly inviolate, but it can of course be changed for emphasis. However, you need special signs to indicate that you’ve done this (like your italicising of “the theater”). In English speech, for example, you could say “That I know” rather than “I know that”, but you would put a bit of extra stress on the “that”.
    Great comments folks – keep ’em coming.

  12. Language Log had a post on this just before they went down last night. I forget who wrote it, but I remember some skepticism at the notion that the gestures were directly related to linguistic objects or concepts like subject, object, and verb.

  13. David Marjanović

    Languages like Russian or Polish can use any word order for emphasis, but SVO is the default which you use when you really don’t want to do anything but state a fact. Same for Latin where SOV was the default. Other languages, like English and Mandarin, allow much less deviation; yet others, like German and French, fill in the middle.
    Yodaspeak is OSV. Like OVS, this (default) word order is extremely rare.

  14. sangatsu

    Interesting, but I’m not convinced.
    Let me picture this: someone is trying to tell me that a woman is twisting a door knob. He makes a gesture that describes a woman. So far so good. Then he makes a twisting gesture with his hands; I’m lost; have no idea what he’s trying to say. But if you first say your’re talking about a woman, then about a doorknob, then I’ll probably understand your twisting gesture. So SOV does not necessarily reveal how the mind structures ideas, but instead, happens to be the most efficient manner in which to communicate ideas. In the SVO order, I don’t know what the second item (the verb) means until the third item (the object) is introduced, whereas in the SOV order, I understand each item in the order they appear. And I think this goes a long way in explaining why a large majority of the world’s languages prefer the SOV paradigm.

  15. NathanS

    It seems like SVO probably developed more as SV (implied object). I hunt. I gather. In a less complex language hunt and gather could very likely have the exact same word necessitating an object.

    Has there been a study of the number of verbs in english and spanish compared to other languages?

  16. Quis

    Only because I favor the model of VSO as a student of Irish do I say that it is easier, logical aand more flexible or linguistically malleable. It gives a universal sense of actions, beyond time and place, things that naturally come into speech later. locations and times-important factors in story telling, the ultimate creative factor in language come later as extensions of actions, actors and acted upon! Created gods the worlds long before gods were they!


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