Linguistics and information theory

The majority of languages — roughly 85 percent of them — can be sorted into two categories: those, like English, in which the basic sentence form is subject-verb-object (“the girl kicks the ball”), and those, like Japanese, in which the basic sentence form is subject-object-verb (“the girl the ball kicks”).

The reason for the difference has remained somewhat mysterious, but researchers from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences now believe that they can account for it using concepts borrowed from information theory. The researchers will present their hypothesis in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In their paper, the MIT researchers argue that languages develop the word order rules they do in order to minimize the risk of miscommunication across a noisy channel.

The tendency even of speakers of a subject-verb-object (SVO) language like English to gesture subject-object-verb (SOV) may be an example of an innate human preference for linguistically recapitulating old information before introducing new information. The “old before new” theory — which, according to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Ellen Price, is also known as the given-new, known-new, and presupposition-focus theory — has a rich history in the linguistic literature, dating back to at least the work of the German philosopher Hermann Paul, in 1880.

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