Information Structure Triggers for Word Order Variation and Change: the OV/VO alternation in the West-Germanic Languages

Author: Tara Struik
LOT Number: 616
ISBN: 978-94-6093-401-8
Pages: 281
Year: 2022
1st promotor: Prof. dr. A.M.C. van Kemenade
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The West-Germanic language family is characterized by a remarkable variation in word order. The continental varieties, including Dutch and German, have largely Object-Verb (OV) word order, whereas English has strict Verb-Object (VO) word order. It is intriguing that such closely related languages show such a fundamental word order distinction, the more so when considering that the older stages of the languages show varying mixtures of OV and VO word order. This variation raises many questions regarding its motivation and its syntactic status, both from a synchronic and diachronic perspective.

This thesis approaches OV/VO variation from a comparative and diachronic perspective, building on the hypothesis that OV/VO variation is motivated by information structure. By means of a series of detailed corpus studies on the earlier stages of English, Dutch, Low German and High German it shows that - while the variation in earlier English, Dutch, and German is structurally similar - the way that information structure governs the OV/VO alternation in the earliest attested language stages already signals the difference between English as a VO language, and Dutch and German as an OV language; in early English VO is the pragmatically neutral word order, whereas in early Dutch and German OV is pragmatically neutral. These findings feed into a novel antisymmetric analysis, in which the variation is derived in the same way for all West-Germanic languages, but which is flexible enough to allow for variation between the individual languages.

The West-Germanic language family is characterized by a remarkable variation in word order. The continental varieties, including Dutch and German, have largely Object-Verb (OV) word order, whereas English has strict Verb-Object (VO) word order. It is intriguing that such closely related languages show such a fundamental word order distinction, the more so when considering that the older stages of the languages show varying mixtures of OV and VO word order. This variation raises many questions regarding its motivation and its syntactic status, both from a synchronic and diachronic perspective.

This thesis approaches OV/VO variation from a comparative and diachronic perspective, building on the hypothesis that OV/VO variation is motivated by information structure. By means of a series of detailed corpus studies on the earlier stages of English, Dutch, Low German and High German it shows that - while the variation in earlier English, Dutch, and German is structurally similar - the way that information structure governs the OV/VO alternation in the earliest attested language stages already signals the difference between English as a VO language, and Dutch and German as an OV language; in early English VO is the pragmatically neutral word order, whereas in early Dutch and German OV is pragmatically neutral. These findings feed into a novel antisymmetric analysis, in which the variation is derived in the same way for all West-Germanic languages, but which is flexible enough to allow for variation between the individual languages.

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