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Eskimo word order variation and its contact-induced perturbation

  • Michael Fortescue (a1)

Eskimo languages are commonly characterized as displaying rather ‘free’ word order as compared to the major western European languages. Nevertheless, there is in West Greenlandic at least a clearly dominant, pragmatically neutral ordering pattern. Deviation from this – when possible at all – results in specifiable contextual marking (the factors involved will be discussed and illustrated in section 2). In fact, the degree of ‘freedom’ involved may vary considerably from dialect to dialect (and from language to language), also through time and according to register/medium. Specifically I shall be claiming that no Eskimo dialect is of the purely pragmatically based word order type (lacking a syntactic ‘basic order’) which Mithun claims is typical for polysynthetic languages with inflected verbs that can stand as independent sentences (Mithun, 1987: 323). Unlike the type of language that Mithun describes, which includes (Iroquoian) Cayuga and (‘Penutian’) Coos, for example, I shall argue that West Greenlandic (WG), a highly polysynthetic language, behaves more like Slavic languages in this respect, though the ‘neutral’ pattern there is of course SVO rather than SOV. Much as described for Czech and Russian by the Prague School functionalists, word order in WG seems to reflect the common ‘functional sentence perspective’ whereby – ignoring postposed ‘afterthought/clarificatory’ material – early position in the sentence is associated with given material of low communicative dynamism, whereas later position is associated with new or important material of high communicative dynamism (see Firbas, 1974). This is the reverse of the situation described by Mithun.

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