Masatoshi Koizumi, Yoshiho Yasugi, Katsuo Tamaoka, Sachiko Kiyama, Jungho Kim,
Juan Esteban Ajsivinac Sian, Lolmay Pedro Oscar García Mátzar
Language, Volume 90, Number 3, September 2014, pp. 722-736 (Article)
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On the (non)universality of the preference for subject-object word order in
sentence comprehension: A sentence-processing study in Kaqchikel Maya
MASATOSHI KOIZUMI YOSHIHO YASUGI KATSUO TAMAOKA
Tohoku University National Museum of Ethnology Nagoya University
SACHIKO KIYAMA JUNGHO KIM
National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology Tohoku University
JUAN ESTEBAN AJSIVINAC SIAN LOLMAY PEDRO OSCAR GARCÍA MÁTZAR
Comunidad Lingüística Kaqchikel Comunidad Lingüística Kaqchikel
The processing load of sentences with three different word orders (VOS, VSO, and SVO) in
Kaqchikel Maya was investigated using a sentence-plausibility judgment task. The results showed
that VOS sentences were processed faster than VSO and SVO sentences. This supports the tradi-
tional analysis in Mayan linguistics that the syntactically determined basic word order is VOS in
Kaqchikel, as in many other Mayan languages. More importantly, the result revealed that the pref-
erence for subject-object word order in sentence comprehension observed in previous studies may
not be universal; rather, the processing load in sentence comprehension is greatly affected by the
syntactic nature of individual languages.*
Keywords: basic word order, field-based psycholinguistics, Guatemala, processing load, syntactic
1. Introduction. In many flexible word-order languages, including Basque,
Finnish, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Sinhalese, sentences in which the
subject (S) precedes the object (O) (SO word order = SOV, SVO, VSO) induce a
lower processing load in comprehension than those in which the opposite occurs (OS
word order = OSV, OVS, VOS), and thus they are preferred by speakers (Sekerina
1997, Bader & Meng 1999, Mazuka et al. 2002, Kaiser & Trueswell 2004, Tamaoka et
al. 2005, among many others). However, previous studies on sentence processing have
all targeted languages, such as Finnish, in which the subject precedes the object in the
syntactically basic word order (= SO languages). Hence, it remains unclear whether
the preference for SO is a reflection of word order in individual languages or of human
cognitive features that are more universal. What we refer to as individual grammar
theory in this short report posits that a language’s syntactically determined basic word
order has a low processing load in comparison to other possible word orders, whereas
* The present study, at its various developmental stages, has been presented at the 24th annual CUNYCon-
ference on Human Sentence Processing, the 10th meeting of the Kansai Circle of Psycholinguistics, the 145th
meeting of the Linguistic Society of Japan, the 8th Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics, the 2nd Formal
Approaches to Mayan Linguistics, and the 6th Formal Approaches to Japanese Linguistics, as well as at the
ZAS (Centre for General Linguistics, Berlin), MIT, Mie University, Hokkaido University, Kwansei Gakuin
University, National Tsing Hua University, and Keio University. We would like to thank the audiences for
their helpful comments and encouragement, especially Judith Aissen, Noam Chomsky, Jessica Coon, Nora
England, John Haviland, Robert Henderson, Klaus von Heusinger, James Huang, Sabine Iatridou, Hisatsugu
Kitahara, Jaklin Kornfilt, Alec Marantz, Shigeru Miyagawa, Wayne O’Neil, Umut Özge, David Pesetsky,
Colin Phillips, Uli Sauerland, Mamoru Saito, Peter Sells, Shigeo Tonoike, Hubert Truckenbrodt, Wei-Tien
Dylan Tsai, Tasaku Tsunoda, Kenneth Wexler, John Whitman, and Kazuko Yatsushiro. Part of this work was
supported by a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (S) entitled A Field-Based Cognitive Neuroscientific
Study of the Processing of OS-Type Languages (No. 22222001, PI: Masatoshi Koizumi) from the Japan So-
ciety for the Promotion of Science.
Printed with the permission of Masatoshi Koizumi, Yoshiho Yasugi, Katsuo Tamaoka, Sachiko Kiyama,
Jungho Kim, Juan Esteban Ajsivinac Sian, & Lolmay Pedro Oscar García Mátzar. © 2014.
SHORT REPORTS 723
what may be referred to as universal cognition theory hypothesizes that SO word
order has a low processing load regardless of the basic word order of any individual lan-
guage. To verify which of these two theories is correct, it is necessary to examine lan-
guages in which the object precedes the subject in the syntactically basic word order
(= OS languages), for which the two theories develop different predictions. There-
fore, as described below, we conducted a sentence-processing experiment in Kaqchikel,
a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. The syntactically determined basic word order
of Kaqchikel is VOS, although in general, word order is relatively flexible (García
Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:333). The results of the experiment revealed that for
Kaqchikel speakers, the processing load of VOS is lower than that of the two other
commonly used word orders, that is, VSO and SVO. This suggests that the preference
for SO in sentence comprehension may not be universal; rather, syntactic features of in-
dividual languages significantly influence sentence-processing load.
2. SO word-order preference. Evidence that SO word orders are easier to process
than OS word orders in flexible word-order languages is abundant in the psycholinguis-
tic and neurolinguistic literature. In terms of behavioral indices, Japanese readers take
less time to judge whether a sentence makes sense when it has SOV word order than
when it has OSV word order (Tamaoka et al. 2005). Longer reading times for OSV sen-
tences in Japanese were also reported using self-paced reading and eye-tracking
methodologies (Mazuka et al. 2002, Imamura & Koizumi 2008b). Similarly, in Finnish,
the SVO order is processed faster than OVS order even when an appropriate context is
provided for the latter (Kaiser & Trueswell 2004). Parallel results from the processing
of orthographically and phonologically presented sentences have been reported for
many other languages (see Sekerina 1997 for Russian, Tamaoka et al. 2011 for Sin-
halese, Kim 2012 for Korean, among many others). In terms of neurophysiological in-
dices, studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found that the
left inferior frontal gyrus is activated more during the processing of OS word orders
compared to SO word orders (Grewe et al. 2007 for German, Kinno et al. 2008 and Kim
et al. 2009 for Japanese). Research on event-related brain potentials (ERPs) also sup-
ports the claim that SO word orders are easier to process. Compared with SO orders, OS
orders elicit P600 and/or (sustained) anterior negativity components, suggesting that
processing OS word orders places a larger load on the working memory (Roesler et al.
1998 for German, Ueno & Kluender 2003 and Hagiwara et al. 2007 for Japanese, Erdo-
cia et al. 2009 for Basque).
The SO word-order preference has been observed not only for flexible word-order
languages but also for languages with less flexible word order, such as English and He-
brew. For example, in English, subject relative clauses such as The reporter [who sent
the photographer to the editor]hoped for a good story are easier to process than object
relative clauses such as The reporter [who the photographer sent to the editor]hoped
for a good story, as evidenced by both behavioral and neurophysiological indices (Cap-
lan & Waters 1999, Just & Carpenter 2001, Grodner & Gibson 2005, Santi & Grodzin-
Thus, we seem to have solid evidence that SO word orders are preferred to OS word
orders in many languages of the world. The question then arises as to the sources of this
preference in sentence comprehension. Apossibility that immediately comes to mind is
that it is primarily due to syntactic canonicity (i.e. individual grammar theory). Accord-
ing to many sentence-processing theories, including Pritchett and Whitman’s (1995)
representational theory of complexity, Gibson’s (2000) dependency locality
theory, and Hawkins’s (1990, 1994, 2004) early immediate constituents, other
things being equal, a language’s syntactically determined basic word order is easier to
process than other grammatically possible but noncanonical derived word orders in the
language. Thus, from the perspective of individual grammar theory, SO word orders
were preferred in previous studies because they are the syntactically basic word orders
in the target languages.
Alternatively, the SO word-order preference in sentence comprehension may be
largely attributable to human cognitive features that are more universal (i.e. universal
cognition theory). That there may be such features is strongly suggested by the fact that
a vast majority of the world’s languages have one of the SO word orders as the basic
word order (SOV: 48%, SVO: 41%, VSO: 8%, VOS: 2%, OVS: 1%, and OSV: 0.5%,
according to Dryer 2005).1In particular, a number of studies have shown that entities
that are prominent as a result of properties such as agency, animacy, concreteness, pro-
totypicality, and prior mention in the discourse tend to appear as sentence-initial sub-
jects (cf. Slobin & Bever 1982, Bock & Warren 1985, Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff 1996,
Primus 1999, Branigan et al. 2008, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky & Schlesewsky 2009).
Universal cognition theory, therefore, suggests that SO word order has a low processing
load regardless of the basic word order of any individual language, again consistent
with what has been reported in the literature so far.
Both individual grammar theory and universal cognition theory correctly predict the
SO word-order preference in sentence comprehension in SO languages. However, their
predictions diverge when it comes to OS languages. According to individual grammar
theory, OS word orders should be processed faster than SO orders in these languages;
universal cognition theory predicts the opposite to be the case. It is therefore necessary
to study OS languages to determine which theory is on the right track. We thus turn to
an OS language, Kaqchikel.
3. Kaqchikel. Kaqchikel is one of the twenty-one Mayan languages spoken in
Guatemala. It is mainly used in the highlands west of Guatemala City, the capital. With
over 450,000 speakers, it is one of the principal Mayan languages along with K’iche’,
Q’eqchi’, and Mam (Tay Coyoy 1996:55, Brown et al. 2006:2, Lewis 2009).
Like other Mayan languages, Kaqchikel is head-marking: subjects and objects are un-
marked, and person and number agreement for both subjects and objects are obligatorily
expressed on the verb. Kaqchikel is ergative, like other Mayan languages. In Mayan lin-
guistics, ergative agreement markers (i.e. those that indicate the subject of a transitive
verb) are called set A, and absolutive agreement markers (which indicate either the sub-
ject of an intransitive verb or object of a transitive verb) are known as set B. The order of
morphemes in the verb is [Aspect-B-A-Verb stem].2An example is given in 1.
1There is additional evidence for the universal nature of SO word-order preference. First, Al-Sayyid
Bedouin Sign Language arose within the last seventy years in an isolated community with a high incidence of
profound prelingual deafness. In the space of one generation, it assumed a grammatical structure character-
ized by SOV order (Sandler et al. 2005). Given that none of the neighboring languages are SOV, the SOV
order seems to have emerged spontaneously in the language without any apparent external influence. Second,
Gell-Manna and Ruhlen (2011) argued, given the distribution of word-order types in world languages, that
the original word order in the ancestral language was SOV. Finally, Goldin-Meadow and colleagues (2008)
showed that speakers of languages that differ in their predominant word orders used the actor-patient-act
order, analogous to the SOV pattern, when asked to describe or reconstruct events without speaking. They
took this to suggest that actor-patient-act is the natural order we impose on events when describing and re-
constructing them nonverbally and exploit when constructing language anew.
2The following abbreviations are used: 1: first person, 3: third person, A: set A ergative, B: set B absolu-
tive, compl: completive, det: determiner, incompl: incompletive, pl: plural, sg: singular.
724 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 90, NUMBER 3 (2014)
SHORT REPORTS 725
‘I help them.’
Since Kaqchikel is a pro-drop language, 1 functions as an independent sentence.
Although, like many other Mayan languages, Kaqchikel allows different grammatical
word orders, its standard order is ‘verb-initial’.3If the sentence is irreversible as in ex-
ample 2 (where the meaning of the sentence collapses with the reversal of the object and
subject), it can be interpreted in either VOS or VSO order. However, VOS is preferred.
(2) a. X-∅-u-chöy ri chäj ri ajanel. (VOS)
compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-cut det pine.tree det carpenter
b. X-∅-u-chöy ri ajanel ri chäj. (VSO)
compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-cut det carpenter det pine.tree
‘The carpenter cut the pine tree.’
In cases like 3a,b, where the sentence is semantically reversible (it makes sense when
the object and subject are reversed), a VOS interpretation is overwhelmingly favored
(even though a VSO interpretation is still possible).
(3) a. X-∅-r-oqotaj ri me’s ri tz’i’. (VOS)
compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-run.after det cat det dog
‘The dog ran after the cat.’
b. X-∅-r-oqotaj ri tz’i’ ri me’s. (VOS)
compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-run.after det dog det cat
‘The cat ran after the dog.’
In cases like 4, where the subject is preposed before the verb, the subject is naturally in-
terpreted as topical or focused.
(4) Ri ajanel x-∅-u-chöy ri chäj. (SVO)
det carpenter compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-cut det pine.tree
‘The carpenter cut the pine tree.’
In this sense, SVO order is pragmatically marked. Furthermore, SVO order has tradi-
tionally required transformation of the predicate, such as by adding an agent-focus mor-
pheme and deleting the ergative agreement marker. Thus, it can be said that SVO is also
marked from a morphological perspective. (In modern Kaqchikel, however, it is possi-
ble to attain the SVO word order without transforming the morphological form of the
verbal complex (retaining the same morphological form as in VOS or VSO), as is evi-
dent in example 4.4) For these and other reasons, the majority of Mayan language re-
searchers consider the syntactically determined basic word order of modern Kaqchikel
to be VOS (Rodríguez Guaján 1994:200, García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:
333, Tichoc Cumes et al. 2000:195, Ajsivinac Sian et al. 2004:162).5
3All six word orders that are logically possible are indeed allowed in many of the Mayan languages, in-
cluding Kaqchikel (England 1991, García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:333).
4Among the six grammatically allowed word orders in Kaqchikel, SVO is most frequently used. It has
been suggested that this is due to the influence of Spanish (Maxwell & Little 2006), but the fact that all six
word orders, including SVO, appear in sixteenth-century Kaqchikel texts shows that SVO was used before
the language had contact with Spanish (Rodríguez Guaján 1989, quoted in England 1991, García Matzar &
Rodríguez Guaján 1997:334).
5Note also that results of a word-order acquisition study in Kaqchikel (Sugisaki et al. 2012) suggest that
Kaqchikel-speaking three-year-old children know that VOS is the unmarked order in their language. Also,
Pye (1992) showed that in K’iche’, a Mayan language closely related to Kaqchikel, children acquire the VOS
According to England (1991:480), sentences with the above-mentioned three types
of word orders have the syntactic structures shown in 5 (see also Aissen 1992, Tada
1993, Coon 2010, and Preminger 2011).
(5) order derivation
VSO [[V __ S] REORDERED O]
SVO [REORDERED S [VO __ ]]
Aissen (1992) has proposed more elaborate syntactic structures for Mayan sentences
with these word orders, but her analysis agrees with England’s in that VSO and SVO
word orders are associated with more complex syntactic structures than VOS word
order (see also Coon 2010 and Preminger 2011).6
Given this feature, the following predictions can be made about processing load in
the comprehension of Kaqchikel sentences: if the preference for SO word order shown
by speakers of SO languages is mainly caused by the syntactic structure of the individ-
ual language, as suggested by individual grammar theory, VOS sentences should have a
lower processing load than VSO or SVO sentences in Kaqchikel. If, by contrast, SO
triggers a lower processing load than OS regardless of the basic word order of the indi-
vidual grammar, as suggested by universal cognition theory, then Kaqchikel VOS sen-
tences should create a greater processing load than the other two word orders. The
field-based psycholinguistic study described in §4 tested these predictions.
It should be noted at this point that, as mentioned in n. 4, even though VOS is
Kaqchikel’s syntactically basic word order, it is the SVO order that is most frequently
used in this language (England 1991:472, Rodríguez Guaján 1994:201, Maxwell & Lit-
tle 2006:102, Kubo et al. 2012). According to Kubo and colleagues (2012), for exam-
ple, of all the sentences with a transitive verb and nominal subject and object produced
in their sentence-production experiment with a picture-description task, sentences with
the SVO, VOS, and VSO orders constitute 74.4%, 24.2%, and 1.4%, respectively. In
fact, not just in Kaqchikel but in many other Mayan languages also, word orders in
which subjects are preposed appear more frequently than the syntactically determined
basic word order. Therefore, it has been pointed out that the ‘syntactically determined
word order’ from the standpoint of syntactic complexity needs to be distinguished from
the ‘pragmatically determined word order’, commonly used for pragmatic purposes,
when examining the ‘basic word order’ of Mayan languages (Broady 1984, England
1991). In the psycholinguistic literature, it has been reported that there are cases where
the frequency with which words and sentence structures appear affects the sentence-
processing load (e.g. Trueswell et al. 1993, MacDonald et al. 1994). That is, speakers of
a language are more proficient in sentence structures and words that are used fre-
quently, and they are more likely to process these with speed and accuracy. It is thus in-
teresting to observe how the production frequency influences sentence processing in
Kaqchikel. We return to this issue in §5.
4.1. Participants. Sixty-one native speakers (twenty-nine females, thirty-two males)
of Kaqchikel participated in the experiment, which was carried out in Guatemala. The
place of origin and residence of the participants were distributed evenly throughout a
6We assume that syntactic structure X is more syntactically complex than syntactic structure Y if X con-
tains more (terminal and nonterminal) nodes (Pritchett & Whitman 1995, O’Grady 2007, Koizumi &
Tamaoka 2010). We may also assume that dependency across a discourse entity increases syntactic complex-
ity (Gibson 2000, Hawkins 1990, 1994, 2004).
726 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 90, NUMBER 3 (2014)
SHORT REPORTS 727
wide range of the central Guatemala highlands, without any concentration on a particu-
lar region. Since there is considerable dialectal and idiolectal variation among Kaqchikel
speakers, only the data of twenty-two speakers (ten females, twelve males), who had over
80% accuracy in sentence processing (of the thirty-six target items and thirty-six im-
plausible items, explained in §4.2), were used in the final analysis. The speakers ranged
in age from twenty to sixty-two years. The average age was thirty-six years, five months,
with a standard deviation of thirteen years, four months.7
4.2. Stimuli. Semantically natural, grammatical transitive sentences were arranged
into each of three word orders (VOS, VSO, SVO), as shown in 6. Thirty-six sets were
created in this way, for a total of 108 target sentences.8All of the target sentences were
so-called irreversible sentences, with a definite animate subject, definite inanimate ob-
ject, and action verb.
(6) a. VOS: X-∅-u-chöy ri chäj ri ajanel.
compl-B.3sg-A.3sg-cut det pine.tree det carpenter
‘The carpenter cut the pine tree.’
b. VSO: Xuchöy ri ajanel ri chäj.
c. SVO: Ri ajanel xuchöy ri chäj.
Additionally, thirty-six transitive sentences that were grammatical but not semantically
natural were arranged in each of the three word orders. They were semantically implau-
sible mostly due to selectional-restriction violations (e.g. #Xuch’äj ri kaq’ïq’ri xta Selfa
‘Miss Selfa washed the air’). The seventy-two total sets, consisting of 216 sentences,
were counterbalanced and then categorized into three groups according to word order.
Sixty semantically plausible and implausible filler sentences were then added to each
The sentences were recorded by a male native Kaqchikel speaker. In order to create
equal durations across the three word-order conditions, the time duration of each sen-
tence was edited in Praat (Boersma & Weenink 2010) by slightly shortening some
pauses between phrases. No particular order was edited significantly more heavily than
the others. After the editing, all of the test items were judged as natural in terms of
prosody by our native Kaqchikel consultants. The averages and standard deviations of
time duration for word order are shown in Table 1.9A one-way analysis of variance
(ANOVA) showed no significant differences among the word orders in terms of time
duration between the onset and offset of the sentence (F(2,70) = 0.527, p= 0.592, n.s.).
Similarly, there was no significant difference in time duration between the onset of
the sentence and the onset of the third phrase (i.e. S of VOS and O of SVO/VSO;
F(2,70) = 1.443, p= 0.243, n.s.).
4.3. Method. A sentence-plausibility judgment task (e.g. Caplan et al. 2008) was ad-
ministered using E-prime (version 2.0, Psychology Software Tools). In this task, the
stimulus sentences were presented in a random order to the participants through head-
sets. The participants were asked to judge whether each sentence was semantically
7When all sixty-one participants were included in the analysis, no word-order preference or correlation be-
tween accuracy rates and word-order preference was found due to large variability.
8VSO-ordered sentences were included in the test for a comparative standard. In other words, VSO is nei-
ther the syntactically canonical order nor the order most frequently used. The production frequency of VSO is
third after SVO and VOS. Note also that VSO is minimally different from VOS in that only the order of S and
O are reversed, whereas SVO diverges from VOS not only in the order of S and O but also in the relative
order of S and V.
9Duration was measured in Praat and is shown to two decimal places.
plausible and to push a YES button (plausible sentence) or NO button (implausible sen-
tence) as quickly and accurately as possible. The time from the beginning of each stim-
ulus sentence until the button was pressed was measured as the reaction time.
4.4. Data compilation for analysis. Among the thirty-six sets of semantically
plausible transitive sentences, only correctly judged items were analyzed. Answers that
were given too quickly (500 ms and under) or too slowly (8000 ms and over) were
recorded as missing values. Then, reaction times outside of 2.5 standard deviations at
both the high and low ranges were replaced by boundaries indicated at plus and minus
2.5 standard deviations from the individual mean of each participant in each category.
These procedures resulted in the loss of 0.3% of the data. The means and standard devi-
ations of reaction times and error rates for the thirty-six sets of semantically plausible
sentences in the three word orders are reported in Table 2.
4.5. Statistical analysis. Statistical analyses were conducted on the basis of a lin-
ear mixed-effects (LME) model (e.g. Baayen 2008), which estimates the effects of the
fixed variables that are of interest in a study over random effects that can be assumed to
be randomly sampled from the population. In this study, the word order of Kaqchikel
sentences was the fixed variable, and participant and item (i.e. stimuli sentence) were
the random variables. PASW ver. 18.0J was used to conduct the analysis.
4.6. Results. An ANOVA of reaction times using an LME model showed a signifi-
cant main effect of word order (F(2,402) = 5.917, p< 0.01, ηp
2= 0.029). Multiple com-
parisons by the Bonferroni method revealed that VOS (M= 3,403 ms) was processed
significantly faster than SVO (M= 3,559 ms, p< 0.05) and VSO (M= 3,601 ms, p<
0.01). No significant difference was found between SVO and VSO.
An LME ANOVA of error rates revealed a significant main effect of word order
(F(2,787) = 15.169, p< 0.001, ηp
2= 0.037). The post hoc test showed that no significant
difference was observed between the error rates for VOS (M= 10.61%) and SVO (M=
7.58%), whereas the error rate for VSO (M= 22.90%) was significantly higher than
those for VOS ( p< 0.001) and SVO ( p< 0.001).
5. Discussion. The results of the sentence-processing experiment in Kaqchikel
showed that VOS word order induced a lower processing load than the two SO word or-
ders (SVO and VSO) for sentences presented in isolation. This supports the traditional
analysis in Mayan linguistics that VOS is the syntactically basic word order of Kaqchikel
728 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 90, NUMBER 3 (2014)
word order whole sentence (ms) before third phrase (ms)
M SD M SD
VOS 3,002 469 1,948 317
SVO 3,006 468 1,893 274
VSO 3,001 470 1,897 298
Table 1. Mean durations of semantically plausible transitive sentences (‘yes’ items) for each word order
(M= mean, SD = standard deviation; n= 36).
word order reaction time (ms) error rate (%)
M SD M SD
VOS 3,403 673 10.61 30.85
SVO 3,559 663 7.58 26.51
VSO 3,601 674 22.90 42.10
Table 2. Reaction times and error rates of transitive sentences judged as semantically plausible
(M= mean, SD = standard deviation; n= 22).
SHORT REPORTS 729
(García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:333). More importantly, it is consistent with
the prediction of individual grammar theory and contradicts the prediction of universal
cognition theory. In other words, the preference for SO word order in sentence compre-
hension reported in previous studies on SO languages may not be universal. This study
verifies for the first time that for speakers of an OS language, OS word order has a lower
processing load. This finding does not deny the existence of universal reasons for the
preference for SO, but it certainly demonstrates that grammatical factors of individual
languages have a relatively greater influence on sentence-processing load.10
According to the psycholinguistic literature on SO languages, there are three major
factors that are generally considered, in individual grammar theory, to contribute to the
lower processing load of syntactically basic word orders compared to other grammati-
cally possible word orders: syntactic complexity, discourse-pragmatic requirements, and
production frequency. First, the syntactically basic word order in a language, by defini-
tion, is associated with simpler syntactic structures than the other grammatically possi-
ble orders in that language (see n. 6). It is therefore less demanding in terms of
working-memory load, and hence is easier to process (cf. Pritchett & Whitman 1995,
Gibson 2000, Marantz 2005, Tamaoka et al. 2005). Second, the syntactically basic order
can be felicitously used in a wide range of contexts, including the absence of any sub-
stantial context, whereas derived orders require a specific discourse context to be felici-
tous.11 For this reason, derived orders cause a higher processing load when their
discourse-pragmatic requirements are not met, such as when they are presented out of
context, as is the case in many processing experiments, including that of the present study
(Kaiser & Trueswell 2004, Weskott et al. 2011). Finally, the syntactically basic order
tends to be more frequently used than other orders.12 Since, other things being equal,
more frequently used structures are processed faster and more accurately, the basic word
order tends to be easier to process (Trueswell et al. 1993, MacDonald et al. 1994).
In Japanese, for example, sentences with the syntactically basic SOV word order
have simpler syntactic structures than the corresponding sentences with the other gram-
matically possible word order, OSV (Hoji 1985, Saito 1985). SOV sentences can also
be used in pragmatically neutral contexts, in contrast to OSV sentences, which are typ-
ically produced when the referent of the object is discourse-given (Kuno 1978, Ima-
mura & Koizumi 2011). Finally, the production frequency of SOV is higher than that of
OSV (97.2% vs. 2.8%, respectively, according to Imamura & Koizumi 2011). Together,
these three factors seem to make SOV sentences easier to process than OSV sentences
in Japanese (Imamura & Koizumi 2008a,b).
What is the case in Kaqchikel? In Kaqchikel, VOS is the syntactically basic word
order, and therefore it is associated with simpler syntactic structures than SVO, VSO, or
10 Given that VOS is preferred to SVO in Kaqchikel comprehension, one might wonder if, in ergative lan-
guages such as Kaqchikel, absolutive-ergative orders are preferred to ergative-absolutive orders—that is, if an
absolutive-ergative word-order preference is observed. However, it has been reported that in Basque, an SOV
ergative language with pro-drop, SOV (= ergative-absolutive-V) sentences are easier to process than the cor-
responding OSV (= absolutive-ergative-V) sentences (Erdocia et al. 2009). This, together with the results of
the present experiment, suggests that in ergative-absolutive as well as nominative-accusative languages, the
most preferred word order is the syntactically basic one.
11 This discourse-pragmatic requirement for derived word orders is related to their syntactic complexity:
since derived word orders are associated with syntactically complex structures and hence are more difficult to
process, the language user would take the trouble to employ them only to achieve a specific goal.
12 The higher frequency of the syntactically basic word order is also related to its syntactic complexity:
since the syntactically basic word order is associated with syntactically simpler structures, and hence easier to
process than derived word orders, (other things being equal) it tends to be used more frequently.
any other order. In terms of discourse-pragmatics, VOS can be used in various contexts,
including a pragmatically neutral context, whereas SVO is frequently used in contexts
where the subject is a topic (García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:334, Tichoc
Cumes et al. 2000:219–23, Ajsivinac Sian et al. 2004:178–80). VSO is employed mostly
when the object is ‘heavy’ or ‘complex’ (England 1991:474, Rodríguez Guaján 1994:
203, but see also García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:341). These syntactic and
discourse-pragmatic factors presumably made the VOS sentences easier to process
than the SVO and VSO sentences in the present experiment, which employed a sentence-
plausibility judgment task with no specific context provided. As for the relationship
between processing load and word-order frequency, however, Kaqchikel seems to be dif-
ferent from SO languages like Japanese.
As pointed out in §3, the production frequency of SVO is higher than those of VOS
and VSO in Kaqchikel (SVO: 74.4%, VOS: 24.2%, and VSO: 1.4%, according to Kubo
et al. 2012). The production frequency factor should, therefore, facilitate the processing
of SVO compared to VOS and VSO. Restricting ourselves to VOS and SVO for the mo-
ment, the syntactic complexity and discourse-pragmatic factors, on the one hand, and
the frequency of usage, on the other, presumably work in the opposite directions: the
syntax and pragmatics favor VOS, whereas the frequency favors SVO. The former
overwhelms the latter, resulting in the lower processing load of VOS. VSO is syntacti-
cally more complex than VOS and is less complex than SVO, because the movement
(or binding) of the subject in SVO crosses (two discourse participants associated with)
V and O, whereas the movement of the object in VSO crosses only one element, that is,
S. The reaction times for VSO, however, were not significantly different from those for
SVO in the current experiment. This is presumably due to VSO’s production frequency
being lower than that of SVO. That is, the effects of syntax and frequency cancel each
other out, yielding comparable processing loads for VSO and SVO. The presumed rela-
tionship among word order, syntactic complexity, discourse-pragmatic requirements,
production frequency, and processing load is summarized in Table 3.
A question naturally arises as to why SVO is more frequently used than VOS in
Kaqchikel, despite the fact that SVO is not the syntactically basic word order and is
more difficult to process than VOS. There are three conceivable reasons. The first has to
do with the head-marking nature of the language. As mentioned earlier, Kaqchikel is a
head-marking language that exhibits subject and object agreement markers on the verb.
The verbal complex of a transitive sentence [Aspect-B-A-Verb stem] contains the infor-
mation about the person and number of the subject and object. It has been shown in
other languages (e.g. English) that information about the verb (e.g. selectional restric-
tions) can immediately be used to facilitate the processing of the subsequent region
(Trueswell et al. 1993, Altmann & Kamide 1999). Therefore, in Kaqchikel, having a
verbal complex in sentence-initial position may be advantageous in that it helps de-
730 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 90, NUMBER 3 (2014)
factor word order
VOS SVO VSO
syntactic complexity simple complex medium
discourse-pragmatics less restricted restricted restricted
production frequency medium high low
processing load low high high
Table 3. Relationship among word order, syntactic complexity, discourse-pragmatic requirements,
production frequency, and processing load in Kaqchikel.
SHORT REPORTS 731
velop predictions about the upcoming subject and object, rendering the processing of
the subsequent portions of the sentence easier. From the perspective of production, in
contrast, verb-initial word orders may be more disadvantageous than nominal-initial or-
ders such as SVO in Kaqchikel. This is because, in order to initiate a sentence with a
verbal complex, conceptual and grammatical information about the subject and object
must have been activated and processed to a certain degree, prior to the beginning of
the utterance. Again, in other languages, it has been shown that the complexity of the
sentence-initial phrase is correlated with the time required to initiate the utterance (e.g.
Smith & Wheeldon 1999), and that latencies are shorter for subject-verb utterances than
for verb-only utterances (Lindsley 1975). For this reason, therefore, SVO may be less
demanding than the verb-initial orders for Kaqchikel speakers, and hence it is produced
more frequently than VOS and VSO. It is thus important to test in future research
whether production latencies are indeed shorter for SVO than VOS.
A second possible factor for the preference of SVO in sentence production, related to
the first, is concerned with similarity-based competition. Gennari and colleagues (2012)
argue that when there is a temporal overlap in the planning of two conceptually similar
nouns, the similarity leads to interference between the semantic information of the nouns.
As a result, when the concept of one noun is activated, the concept of the other noun is
inhibited, and the latter noun is mentioned away from the initially activated noun, or sim-
ply omitted in the sentence. Moreover, the effect of conceptual similarity interacts with
language-specific grammatical constraints, and the actual instantiation may vary across
languages. Kubo and colleagues (2012) examined how similarity-based competition in-
fluences speakers’ choices of sentence patterns in Kaqchikel. The production of VOS
sentences is interesting because the most accessible element, an animate agent noun usu-
ally realized as the subject, must be retained in memory until the end of the sentence, and
hence it potentially competes with other elements. If similarity-based competition arises
between the subject and object in Kaqchikel, one of them must be realized away from the
other. Since the object usually follows the verb in Kaqchikel, the increase in competition
would lead to the decrease of VOS word order. Kubo and colleagues conducted two pic-
ture-description experiments to verify this prediction. In the first experiment, the ani-
macy of the patient noun was manipulated (human, animal, inanimate object) such that
similarity between the agent (human) and patient varied across conditions. The results
showed that VOS sentences were produced more often with an inanimate patient than
with an animal or human patient, as predicted by similarity-based competition. In the sec-
ond experiment, the researchers examined the effect of an agreement morpheme on the
verb by changing the number of the object noun. The results replicated the overall pat-
terns of the first experiment. That is, VOS sentences were produced more often with an
inanimate patient than with a human patient, even when the number of the subject was
different from the number of the object. This indicates that ambiguity resolution is not
the most influential factor in the choice of sentence pattern in Kaqchikel (cf. Skopeteas
& Verhoeven 2009). Both of these results together indicate that native Kaqchikel speak-
ers seem to be sensitive to the competition caused by the similarity of noun concepts in-
volved in an event described in a sentence, and they select the sentence pattern that best
resolves competition between nouns with similar concepts.
Finally, the ‘saliency of subjects’ may contribute to the frequency of SVO. It has
been observed in many languages that subjects tend to become topics of conversation
more easily than other immediate sentence constituents, and topics tend to appear at the
beginning of sentences. Indeed, in Mayan languages, constituents that appear before
verbs are often interpreted as the topic of the utterance, and the observation that space
for a topic is syntactically secured before verbs is widely supported (England 1991, Ais-
sen 1992, García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:334).13This means that, although
VOS is syntactically the basic word order used in pragmatically neutral contexts and in-
duces a lower processing load, SVO is used more frequently in conversation because
subjects are often preposed as the topic (Tichoc Cumes et al. 2000:219–23, Ajsivinac
Sian et al. 2004:178–80). This last point leads to the expectation that SVO sentences
may be easier to process given an appropriate context, which needs to be tested in fu-
We have observed that in Kaqchikel, SO word order, which causes a higher process-
ing load, is used more frequently than OS word order, which induces a lower process-
ing load, arguably for pragmatic reasons. If this is true not only of Kaqchikel, but also
of other OS languages, it would mean that OS languages are less economical in terms of
linguistic performance. In SO languages, by contrast, the syntactically simple word
order, which triggers a lower processing load, is also the most frequently used word
order; subjects appear in front as a topic, and thus these languages are more economical.
For example, in English, word order remains fixed as SVO regardless of whether the
referent of the subject is the topic of the conversation. Similarly, in Japanese, in prag-
matically neutral contexts the subject is marked with the nominative case marker and
the object with the accusative case marker. When the referent of the subject is a dis-
course topic, the subject is preposed and marked with the topic marker. In either case,
the word order is SOV. This is schematically shown in 7.
(7) a. [S-nom O-acc V]
b. [S-top [ __ O-acc V]]
The production frequency of [S-top [ __ O-acc V]] is several times higher than that of
[S-nom O-acc V] (Imamura & Koizumi 2011), parallel to SVO and VOS in Kaqchikel.
However, there is a crucial difference between Japanese and Kaqchikel. In Japanese,
both [S-nom O-acc V] and [S-top [ __ O-acc V]] have SOV word order, and the dif-
ference in syntactic complexity between them is minimal, the topicalization in 7b being
string-vacuous. In fact, Sato and Koizumi (2012) observed that Japanese speakers
processed [S-top [ __ O-acc V]] as fast as [S-nom O-acc V]. Although the economic
efficiency of linguistic performance must still be carefully examined in detail in future
research, the reason why over 95% of the world’s languages are SO and so few have OS
as the basic word order, as well as the reason why OS languages are relatively unstable,
occasionally shifting to SVO/VSO (Gell-Manna & Ruhlen 2011), might be explained,
in part, by the fact that the syntactically determined word order does not coincide with
the pragmatically determined word order in OS languages.
To summarize, the present study suggests that Kaqchikel speakers prefer VOS to
SVO in sentence comprehension despite the fact that SVO is more frequently produced
than VOS. Ajustifiable criticism of our claims is that a single experiment with a single
type of stimuli and a single task is not sufficient to firmly establish that VOS is indeed
easier to process than the other orders in Kaqchikel. Admittedly, there are a number of
shortcomings. For example, the test items of the form VNN are syntactically ambigu-
ous between VOS and VSO, and can only be disambiguated semantically by relying on
the animacy of the subject and object. It may be necessary to test whether the core re-
sults can be replicated with structurally unambiguous sentences. Furthermore, we em-
13 A focused element also occurs preverbally in Mayan languages, sometimes simultaneously with a topic
(Aissen 1992, García Matzar & Rodríguez Guaján 1997:337, 341; see also Stiebels 2006, Preminger 2011).
This also seems to contribute to the high frequency of SVO in Kaqchikel and other Mayan languages.
732 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 90, NUMBER 3 (2014)
SHORT REPORTS 733
ployed reaction time in the sentence-plausibility judgment task to estimate processing
load. While reaction time is one of the standard indices frequently used to measure task
difficulty in psycholinguistic studies, it may be desirable to conduct follow-up studies
with a different task and/or index (e.g. an ERP experiment with a picture-sentence
matching task). The relationship between comprehension and production, as well as
contextual effects on comprehension/production, also needs to be investigated in
Kaqchikel and other OS languages. We hope to address these and related issues in fu-
6. Conclusion. The results of the sentence-processing experiment showed that
VOS, which is the syntactically determined basic word order, has a lower processing
load than SVO and VSO for Kaqchikel speakers. This revealed that the preference for
SO word order in sentence comprehension observed in previous studies of SO lan-
guages may not be universal; rather, processing load in sentence comprehension is
greatly affected by the syntactic nature of individual languages. Further, in Kaqchikel,
SVO (one of the SO word orders) has a higher production frequency than VOS, which
is the syntactically determined basic word order. That is, the most frequently used word
order in Kaqchikel is one that triggers a relatively higher processing load; hence, the
language may be less optimal in this respect in terms of linguistic performance. If this
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[firstname.lastname@example.org] (Ajsivinac Sian)
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