The origin and evolution of word order

Archeological evidence points to the sudden appearance of strikingly modern behaviour in humans around 50,000 years ago in the form of sophisticated tools and art like painting, sculpture and engravings. A possible reason for this could be the development of a fully modern human language, the proto-language that eventually gave rise to all the current languages. What can we conclude about the nature of this language?

Consider the word order of a sentence such as “the man killed the bear”. The man is the subject (S), killed is the verb (V) and the bear is the object (O) so the ordering of the sentence is SVO (subject, verb, and object).

Nobel-prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann from the Santa Fe Institute and linguist Merritt Ruhlen from Stanford University have analysed the distribution of word-orders in a sample of 2,135 languages, classified into seven major families. They conclude that five of them were originally SOV, one must have been either SOV or SVO, and another was SVO.

This strongly favours the proto-language being SOV (so the sentence would have been: the man the bear killed). The existing SOV languages, such as Danish, have apparently not changed their structure since their origin. Most modern languages have, however, adopted the possibly more logical SVO word order.

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