World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Subject side parameter

Article Id: WHEBN0003332352
Reproduction Date:

Title: Subject side parameter  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Generative linguistics, Principles and parameters
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Subject side parameter

The subject-side parameter, also called the specifier–head parameter, is a proposed parameter within generative linguistics which states that the position of the subject may precede or follow the head. In the world's languages, Specifier-first order (i.e., subject-initial order) is more common that Specifier-final order (i.e., subject-final order). For example, in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), 76% of the languages in their sample Specifier-first (either SVO or SVO). In this respect, the subject-side parameter contrasts with the head-directionality parameter. The latter, which classifies languages according to whether the head precedes or follows its complement, shows a roughly 50-50 split: in languages that have a fixed word order, about half have a Head-Complement order, and half have a Complement-Head order.[1]


  • History 1
  • Theories in word ordering 2
    • Specifier–Head order 2.1
      • SVO 2.1.1
      • SOV 2.1.2
    • Head–Specifier order 2.2
      • VOS 2.2.1
      • OVS 2.2.2
    • Subject–Medial order 2.3
      • VSO 2.3.1
      • OSV 2.3.2
  • Why are some word orders more common? 3
  • Changes over Time 4
  • See also 5
  • Additional reading 6
  • References 7


First developed in the late 1960s and later introduced in his Lectures on Government and Binding (1981), Noam Chomsky presented his work on principles and parameters. Originally, it was not understood if word order was distinct from head order, but this was later proven by Flynn and Espinal using the case of Chinese and English showing the need for a subject side parameter.[2]

Theories in word ordering

The following are 6 possible word orders that we can find across human languages. WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures, presents a statistical estimation on languages with their own word orders.

Word Orders Percentage
SOV 41.03% Subject-initial Specifier-Head
SVO 35.44%
VSO 6.90% Subject-medial Head-Specifier
VOS 1.82% Subject-final
OVS 0.79%
OSV 0.29% Subject-medial Specifier-Head

The WALS database indicates that languages with the order subject-object-verb (SOV) and subject-verb-object (SVO) are overwhelmingly the most numerous. WALS cites there are 189 languages that have no dominant word order.[3] However, taking this data into account as it is the most complete source of language structure data, X-bar Theory states that underlying structure will differ from surface structure, especially in languages that have seemingly non-dominant structures. Additionally, WALS data appears to lack any data on Amerindian languages or signed languages.

The relative frequencies of word order as follows: 
SOV = SVO > VSO > VOS = OVS > OSV [4]

Specifier–Head order


Using WALS data, subject-verb-object languages, such as English, French and Mandarin, are the second most populous languages in the world at 35.44% of the world's languages. SVO word order is thought to be derived from SOV word order to avoid the possible ambiguity caused by the topicalization of the objects. For example, the topicalization in SVO word order would result in OSV, which leaves the same sentence structure as in [NP NP VP]. One example of SVO language is a Old French example:[5]

SVO word order
1. Car      je      croi       qu'elle    soit        morte      de    duel
   because  I   think-1SG:Pres   that     she  die-3SG:SBJVPERF from   pain
  'Because I think that she died from sorrow.'
   (Lahousse, 2012 p. 392 (4a))

In this sentence, the subject noun phrase je comes at the beginning of the sentence, the verb croi comes the next and then the object noun phrase qu'elle... follows to form SVO word order. If we were to topicalize the object, then we would have two noun phrases before the verb, which will cause the ambiguity on which of the two noun phrases is the subject and which is the object.


Subject-object-verb is another common sentence structure found in many languages. SOV has been thought to be the most "unmarked" word order and assumed to be the base of the other word orders according to X-bar Theory. Similarly, in two well-known studies done by Li and Thompson (1975), it is suggested that SOV word order codes definite object.[6] Japanese and Korean are some languages that use SOV word order. In Korean, subject comes at the beginning of the sentence, followed by object and then the verb. For example:[7][8]

SOV word order
2. na-n    Yenghi   po-ass-e
   I-Top   Yenghi see-Past-Dec
  'I saw Yenghi.' 
   (Lee, 2007 p. 3 (3a))

Above, the subject na comes at the beginning of the sentence, the object Yenghi follows and then po-ass-e comes at the last. This forms SOV word order.

Head–Specifier order


Verb-object-subject is an uncommon sentence structure. Languages being classified to this structure are Malagasy and Ch'ol. In these languages, it is mainly divided into two parts: subject and predicate. In Malagasy, the position in a sentence is related to the degree of topicalization. The normal word order is that subject is preceded by predicate. The following example is in Malagasy.[9]

VOS word order
3. Manana  omby  mena  aho
    have   cow   red    I
  'I have a red cow.'
   (Dahl,1996 p. 168 (3))

One of the explanations for such word order is that there is a movement occurred in the sentence structure. Specifically, the movement is phrasal fronting as proposed by Jessica Coon in her paper focusing on Ch'ol, but it is very likely to be used to explain other languages having VOS word order.[10] This proposal is a result of moving the verb phrase to a higher position in a syntactic tree form. The verb phrase is assumed to move to the specifier position of tense phrase. The reasons why there is a verb phrase movement based on two main factors: agreement features on tense phrase and restriction on head movement. The whole verb phrase movement acts as the last resort because the language disallow only the head to move. It must take the whole phrase to move instead. In addition, Diana Massam also proposed that the Extended Projection Principle can be taken in account for the verb phrase movement, given the [+predicate] feature on the tense phrase.[11]


Object-verb-subject is a minority sentence structure. There are some African languages like Hixkaryana and Urarina that have such uncommon structure. The following example is from Hixkaryana:[12]

OVS word order
4. kana    yanimno     biryekomo
   fish  he-caught-it     boy
  'The boy caught a fish.'
   (Derbyshire & Pullum,1981 p. 194 (1a))

Desmond C. Derbyshire suggested that this word order in Hixkaryana is based on its native-speakers' intuitions and statistical evidence.[13] These two pieces of evidence show that the object is followed by a verb and the subject occurs in final position. On the other hand, Laura Kalin proposed there are three factors to make movement occur in the sentence structure: focus, contrastive topic and wh-questions.[14] This is the driving force to make the verb phrase move to initial position.

Subject–Medial order


Verb-subject-object structure is thought to be derived from the SVO structure. Examples of VSO languages are Welsh and Arabic. The rarity of this word order may be occur as a result of this language occurring when V-fronting moves the verb out of the verb phrase in the SVO structure and places it before the subject [15] This modification disrupts the underlying X-bar structure and thus makes VSO rarer due to the complexity of grammar. Thus, there is no X-bar Theory tree form for this. The subject position in VSO languages is not properly governed, in that it can sway between VSO and SVO.

Alternately, there is evidence that many languages with a VSO word order can take on SVO as an alternate word order.[16] There is evidence of the underlying structure in VSO languages being SVO. For example, in Welsh, there is a SVO structure occurring after auxiliaries but otherwise the sentence structure is VSO.[17][18] Below are two synonymous examples from Welsh. Example 5 shows a sentence with VSO structure and example 6 shows a sentence with SVO structure:

VSO word order
5. Gwelodd Sion  ddraig. 
    saw-3 SGPST  dragon
  'John saw a dragon.'
   (Sproat, 1985 : 176(3a))
6. Gwnaeth  Sion  weld   draig 
    did-3  SGPST   see   dragon
  'John saw a dragon.' 
   (Sproat, 1985 : 176(3b))


Object-subject-verb is the rarest sentence structure compared with the above sentence structures.[19] No languages are identified as having a basic OSV structure, however it thought that some Amazonian languages do.[20] There are some languages that are identified as having some OSV sentence structures. Some of these languages are American Sign Language (ASL), English and German. However, ASL, like many others, does not consistently utilize an OSV structure. Sometimes if the verb is relating to aspect, it can often adopt an SOV structure. Here is an example of the order in which someone would sign:[21]

7. TOMATO GIRL EAT+durative
  'The girl ate tomatoes for a long time.'
   (Matsuoka, 1997: 131(7)) 

One possibility that can explain the rarity of these languages, is that, in general, objects do not occur in initial position often.[22] Subjects are more often occurring in initial position. This is why SVO and SOV are more common than both OSV and OVS.

The word order of OSV does not fit with the current X-bar Theory and therefore we can not draw a tree. There is some undetermined movement that occurs or the tree structure may be altered so that the subject may be the sister of the verb.[23]

Why are some word orders more common?

Though there are logically 6 possible word orders — namely SVO, SOV, VOS, OVS, VSO and OSV — some orders are more common than others. There are research and studies been done in order to account for such phenomenon; a few of the possible reasons are as follows:

In Matthew Hall, Victor Ferreira and Rachel Mayberry’s paper,[24] they argue that because there are three constraints — being efficient, keeping subjects before objects, avoiding SOV for reversible events — that the SVO word order can allow its users, it becomes more popular than others. Moreover, they clam that when gestural consistency and a passive interlocutor were both present, the SVO word order will appear significantly. Meanwhile according to Luke Maurits, Amy Perfors and Daniel Navarro,[25] the reason for object-initial languages to be less common than other word orders could be explained by the effects of Uniform Information Density (UID). They suggest that “object-first word orders lead to the least uniform information density in all three of [their] estimated event distributions”(Maurits et al., 2010, p. 7), and was therefore least common. On the other hand, a stimulation study on word order bias[26] also demonstrates that local syntax is one of the triggers of bias towards SOV/SVO word orders; furthermore, the global syntax is also constrained by language encoded semantic structures.

Changes over Time

In some languages, there is evidence that the dominant word order has changed over time. For example, the dominant word order in Mandarin Chinese and German shifted from SVO to SOV. In Modern Chinese, one factor for this shift is the productivity of compound verbs. This increase in compound verbs lead to an increase in post-positions such as le, bei and ba, which are used as aspect markers. [27]

See also

Additional reading

  • Chomsky, Noam (1981). Lecture on Government and Binding. Mouton de Gruyter. 
  • Derbyshire, Desmond C.; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1981). "Object-Initial Languages" (PDF). International Journal of American Linguistics 47 (3): 192–214.  


  1. ^ Baker, Mark (2001). The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar. Basic Books. p. 75. 
  2. ^ Flynn, S.; Espinal, I. date=1985. Head-initial/head-final parameter in adult Chinese L2 acquisition of English. pp. 93–117. 
  3. ^ "World Atlas of Language Structure". Retrieved 4 November 2014. 
  4. ^ Tomlin, R. S. (2014). Basic Word Order (RLE Linguistics B: Grammar): Functional Principles (Vol. 13). Routledge.
  5. ^ Lahousse, K.; Lamiroy, B. (2012). "Word Order in French, Spanish and Italian: A Grammaticalization Account". Folia Linguistica 46 (2): 387–416.  
  6. ^ Chao-Fen Sun & Talmy Givón. On the So-Called Sov Word Order in Mandarin Chinese: A Quantified Text Study and Its Implications Language Vol. 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1985), pp. 329-351
  7. ^ Lee, Jeong-Shik (2007). "Deriving SOV from SVO in Korean". Linguistics 15 (3): 1–20. 
  8. ^ Bauer, Brigitte L.M.. (1995). Emergence and Development of SVO Patterning in Latin and French, The: Diachronic and Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved 11 November 2014, from
  9. ^ Dahl, Otto Chr. "Predicate, Subject, and Topic in Malagasy". University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  10. ^ Coon, Jessica. "VOS as predicate fronting in Chol". pp. 354–378. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  11. ^ Carnie, Andrew (1 January 2000). The Syntax of the Verb Initial Languages. Oxford University Press (US). pp. 97–116. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  12. ^ Derbyshire, Desmond C; Pullum, Geoffrey K (July 1981). "Object-Initial Languages". International Journal of American Linguistics 47 (3): 192–214.  
  13. ^ Derbyshire, Desmond C. "Word Order Universals and the Existence of OVS Languages". pp. 590–599. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Kalin, Laura. "Hixkaryana: the Syntax of Object Verb Subject Word Order" (PDF). Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Emonds, J. (1980). Word order in generative grammar. Journal of linguistic research, 1(1), 33-54.
  16. ^ Emonds, J. (1980). Word order in generative grammar. Journal of linguistic research, 1(1), 33-54.
  17. ^ Roberts, I. G. (2005). Principles and parameters in a VSO language: A case study in Welsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  18. ^ Sproat, R. (1985). Welsh syntax and VSO structure. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 3(2), 173-216.
  19. ^ Tomlin, R. S. (2014). Basic Word Order (RLE Linguistics B: Grammar): Functional Principles (Vol. 13). Routledge.
  20. ^ Comrie, B. (1989). Language universals and linguistic typology: Syntax and morphology. University of Chicago press.
  21. ^ Matsuoka, K. (1997). Verb raising in American sign language. Lingua, 103(2), 127-149.
  22. ^ Dryer, M. S. (1992). The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language, 81-138.
  23. ^ Black, C. A. (1999). A step-by-step introduction to the Government and Binding theory of syntax. Summer Institute of Linguistics-Mexico Branch and University of North Dakota. www. sil. org/americas/mexico/ling/E002-IntroGB. pdf.
  24. ^ Hall, Matthew L.; Ferreira, Victor S.; Mayberry, Rachel I. (March 18, 2014). "Investigating Constituent Order Change With Elicited Pantomime: A Functional Account of SVO Emergence". Cognitive Science 38 (5): 934–972.  
  25. ^ Maurits, Luke; Perfors, Amy; Navarro, Daniel. "Why are some word orders more common than others? A uniform information density account" (PDF). NIPS Proceedingsβ. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  26. ^ Gong, Tao; Minett, James W.; Wang, William S-Y. (2009). "A simulation study on word order bias". Interaction studies 10 (1): 51.  
  27. ^ Li. C, Thompson. S. An Explanation of Word Order Change SVO→SOV Charles N. Springer Article, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Nov., 1974), pp. 201-214
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.