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Parts-of-speech systems and word order

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2004

University of Amsterdam
University of Aarhus
University of Lancaster


This paper argues that the word order possibilities of a language are partly determined by the parts-of-speech system of that language. In languages in which lexical items are specialized for certain functionally defined syntactic slots (e.g. the modifier slot within a noun phrase), the identifiability of these slots is ensured by the nature of the lexical items (e.g. adjectives) themselves. As a result, word order possibilities are relatively unrestricted in these languages. In languages in which lexical items are not specialized for certain syntactic slots, in that these items combine the functions of two or more of the traditional word classes, other strategies have to be invoked to enhance identifiability. In these languages word order constraints are used to make syntactic slots identifiable on the basis of their position within the clause or phrase. Hence the word order possibilities are rather restricted in these languages. Counterexamples to the latter claim all involve cases in which identifiability is ensured by morphological rather than syntactic means. This shows that there is a balanced trade-off between the syntactic, morphological, and lexical structure of a language.

Research Article
2004 Cambridge University Press

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We are grateful to Edith Moravcsik, the editors of JL and two anonymous JL referees for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.
Abbreviations used in morheme glosses: 1=first person, 2=second person, 3=third person, ABS=absolutive, ACC=accusative, ANAPH=anaphoric, ART=article, ASP=aspect, AUX=auxiliary, CL=classifier, CO=coordinator, CONN=connector, DAT=dative, DIR=direction, ERG=ergative, FUT=future, GENR=general tense, GER=gerund, INT=interrogative, IT=iterative, LD=locative-directional, LNK=linker, M=masculine, NHUM=non-human, NPAST=non-past, OBJ=object, PAST=past, PERF=perfect, PF=perfective, PL=plural, PM=predicate marker, POSS=possessor, PRES=presentative, PROGR=progressive, PRS=present, PUNCT=punctual, RCP=reciprocal, REAL=realis, REL=relativizer, SBJ=subject, SG=singular, SPEC=specific, SS=same subject, STAT=stative, SUB=subordinator, TOP=topic, TR=transitive, VR=verbalizer.