NIPS Proceedingsβ

Why are some word orders more common than others? A uniform information density account

Part of: Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 23 (NIPS 2010)

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Languages vary widely in many ways, including their canonical word order. A basic aspect of the observed variation is the fact that some word orders are much more common than others. Although this regularity has been recognized for some time, it has not been well-explained. In this paper we offer an information-theoretic explanation for the observed word-order distribution across languages, based on the concept of Uniform Information Density (UID). We suggest that object-first languages are particularly disfavored because they are highly non-optimal if the goal is to distribute information content approximately evenly throughout a sentence, and that the rest of the observed word-order distribution is at least partially explainable in terms of UID. We support our theoretical analysis with data from child-directed speech and experimental work.