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Maximizing processing in an SOV language: A corpus study of Japanese and English

 Mieko Ueno and Maria Polinsky


A number of parser models (e.g., Pritchett, 1992; Babyonyshev & Gibson, 1999) are based on the idea that syntactic attachment happens at the verbal head, which gives the parser information about semantic roles and grammatical relations of argument noun phrases.  Such models predict that S(ubject)-O(bject)-V(erb) languages are harder to process than SVO languages, since the parser would have to hold both S and O until it hits V, as opposed to only holding S in SVO.  However, since there has been no attested difference in reaction times of SOV and SVO languages for on-line processing, we hypothesize that SOV languages have strategies to compensate for the late appearance of the verb.  In particular, they may differ from SVO languages in having fewer sentences with two-place predicates and both arguments expressed.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted a comparative corpus study  of English (SVO) and Japanese (SOV).  For both languages, root clauses (N=800) were examined with respect to the frequency of one-place (SV: intransitives) vs. two-place (SOV for Japanese, SVO for English: transitives) predicate structures and the overt expression of all arguments.  Four different genres were examined in both languages: home decoration magazines, mystery novels, books about Japanese politics, and children's utterances (from CHILDES).  Japanese exhibits a significantly greater use of one-place predicates than English (for example, 62.9% compared to the English 36.5% in mystery novels; p<.001 in all genres except books about Japanese politics).  In addition, within two-place predicates, Japanese uses null pronouns (pro-drop), thus reducing the number of overt argument noun phrases.  The use of pro-drop with one-place predicates in Japanese is significantly less than with two-place predicates (p<.05, in all genres except mystery novels).  The differences are particularly apparent in child language, where Japanese-speaking children around 3;8 had 21% transitives with 100% pro-drop and English-speaking children of the same age had 71% transitives with only 33% pro-drop.

These results suggest that there is an extra cost associated with the processing of transitive clauses in a verb-final language.  To minimize that cost, Japanese uses a significantly lower percentage of full SOV  structures.  The results thus suggest that SVO and SOV languages differ in their processing strategies in a systematic way.


Babyonyshev, M., & Gibson, E. (1999).  The complexity of nested structures in Japanese.  Language, 75, 423-450.

Pritchett, B. (1992).  Grammatical Competence and Parsing Performance.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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