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Investigating Constituent Order Change With Elicited Pantomime: A Functional Account of SVO Emergence

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Abstract

One of the most basic functions of human language is to convey who did what to whom. In the world's languages, the order of these three constituents (subject [S], verb [V], and object [O]) is uneven, with SOV and SVO being most common. Recent experiments using experimentally elicited pantomime provide a possible explanation of the prevalence of SOV, but extant explanations for the prevalence of SVO could benefit from further empirical support. Here, we test whether SVO might emerge because (a) SOV is not well suited for describing reversible events (a woman pushing a boy) and (b) pressures to be efficient and mention subjects before objects conspire to rule out many other alternatives. We tested this by asking participants to describe reversible and non-reversible events in pantomime, and we instructed some participants to be consistent in the form of their gestures and to teach them to the experimenter. These manipulations led to the emergence of SVO in speakers of both English (SVO) and Turkish (SOV).

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