9 March 2016: Klaus Abels (UCL), “What word order typology reveals about universal cognitive biases”


In this talk I discuss recent advances in word order typology, which have attracted keen interest from typologists, theoretical syntacticians, and experimentalists. I will first lay out the basic word order patterns that we find across the languages of the world. I’ll be concerned with the neutral order of mutually comparable elements: verbs with respect to each other, nominal modifiers with respect to each other, adverbs with respect to each other, etc. While some types of orders are very common, others are rare across these domains. Yet others are systematically completely absent. The four orders of demonstrative, numeral, adjective, and noun below illustrate the point:

1) demonstrative numeral adjective noun
2) noun adjective numeral demonstrative
3) noun demonstrative numeral adjective
4) adjective numeral demonstrative noun

The orders in (1) and (2) are typologically very common; (3) is rare; (4) is unattested as the neutral word order in any language. Such typological facts can be accounted for with a few simple assumptions about the structure and derivation of sentences. I introduce these assumptions and show how they can be viewed as universal cognitive biases. In the final part of the talk, I will present the encouraging results of a number of experiments whose aim it is to isolate and independently support the existence of these biases.


Short bio:

Klaus Abels received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Connecticut in 2003. He has since worked in Leipzig (Germany) and Tromsø (Norway) and is currently reader in linguistics at University College London. He is co-editor of the journal SYNTAX. His work focuses on theoretical syntax and, more specifically, movement operations and the constraints on them.