Partial Word Order Freezing in Dutchby Gerlof J. Bouma, Petra Hendriks

Journal of Logic, Language and Information


Computer Science (miscellaneous) / Linguistics and Language / Philosophy


Word frequency and word order in freezes


The Words of Dutch Origin

William H. Carpenter

Combinatorics on partial word correlations

F. Blanchet-Sadri, Justin Fowler, Joshua D. Gafni, Kevin H. Wilson

Predictors of Response to Intervention of Word Reading Fluency in Dutch

F. Scheltinga, A. van der Leij, C. Struiksma


J Log Lang Inf (2012) 21:53–73

DOI 10.1007/s10849-011-9145-x

Partial Word Order Freezing in Dutch

Gerlof J. Bouma · Petra Hendriks

Published online: 20 July 2011 © The Author(s) 2011. This article is published with open access at

Abstract Dutch allows for variation as to whether the first position in the sentence is occupied by the subject or by some other constituent, such as the direct object.

In particular situations, however, this commonly observed variation in word order is ‘frozen’ and only the subject appears in first position. We hypothesize that this partial freezing of word order in Dutch can be explained from the dependence of the speaker’s choice of word order on the hearer’s interpretation of this word order. A formal model of this interaction between the speaker’s perspective and the hearer’s perspective is presented in terms of bidirectional Optimality Theory. Empirical predictions of this model regarding the interaction between word order and definiteness are confirmed by a quantitative corpus study.

Keywords Bidirectional Optimality Theory · Corpus study · Definiteness ·

Variation · Word order freezing 1 Introduction

Even languages with a relatively fixed word order, such as Dutch, allow for variation in word order. In Dutch, the first position in the sentence is usually occupied by the subject, as is illustrated by (1). However, in particular circumstances another

G. J. Bouma (B)

Department Linguistik, Universität Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany e-mail:

P. Hendriks

Center for Language and Cognition Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands e-mail: 123 54 G. J. Bouma, P. Hendriks constituent may come first in the sentence. Examples (2) and (3) show that the first position can also be occupied by a direct object or an indirect object, respectively. (1) Ik heb jou dat verteld.

I have you that told (2) Dat heb ik jou verteld. that have I you told (3) Jou heb ik dat verteld. you have I that told ‘I have told you that’

Why does such variation occur? And what makes a speaker choose either of these forms? In general, there seem to be few restrictions on the occurrence of subjects in first position. The occurrence of other constituents in first position, in contrast, seems to be strongly restricted by context and other factors. However, very little empirical work has been carried out to investigate the exact nature of these restrictions (Jansen and Wijnands 2004, is a notable exception). Empirical studies investigating word order variation in the postverbal domain in English, as with heavy NP shift or the dative alternation (e.g., Arnold et al. 2000; Bresnan et al. 2007), have shown that such word order variation is driven by factors like givenness, weight, pronominality, definiteness, and animacy. Furthermore, these studies have emphasized the need to consider actual language use rather than examples contrived by linguists. Only by considering actual language use in context using advanced statistical modeling techniques, these authors argue, is it possible to identify and disentangle the highly correlated and often gradient factors that influence language use. The present study takes a similar approach and investigates which factors influence the variation illustrated in (1)–(3) regarding the preverbal position in Dutch, by examining word order in the spoken Dutch corpus

Corpus Gesproken Nederlands (CGN 2004).

If we know which factors influence the word order variation illustrated in (1)–(3), however, we do not yet have an answer to the question what makes a speaker choose a particular form. Does a particular choice of form benefit the speaker, the hearer, or both? Arnold et al. (2000), in their corpus study and production experiment on heavy

NP shift and the dative alternation in English, argue that the observed word order preferences regarding dative alternation are the result of planning processes benefiting the speaker. When the speakers in their experiment were disfluent during the initial part of the utterance, indicating difficulty in production, they were significantly more likely to produce the more salient and more familiar NP first. However, their study focused on a type of variation in word order that does not result in any differences in truth-conditional meaning. The two dative variants Give the white rabbit the carrot and Give the carrot to the white rabbit have comparable meanings. As it is not obvious why and how the hearer would benefit from choosing one of these word order variants over the other, the results of Arnold et al.’s study do not bear on the question whether word order variation may also help the hearer.

In Dutch, whether the constituent in first position is interpreted as the subject or as the direct or indirect object is crucial for determining the truth-conditional meaning of the sentence. As a consequence, there is a potential benefit for the hearer in the speaker’s selection of one form over the other: The speaker’s choice may help 123

Partial Word Order Freezing in Dutch 55 the hearer to arrive at the intended meaning. By investigating the variation regarding the first sentence position in Dutch, we may therefore be able to determine whether speakers choose a particular word order variant for their own benefit only or also for the benefit of the hearer. To answer this question, we need to distinguish the intentions and choices of the speaker from the intentions and choices of the hearer. A linguistic framework capable of doing so is bidirectional Optimality Theory (Blutner 2000;

Blutner et al. 2006; Hendriks et al. 2010). Bidirectional Optimality Theory models the interplay between the speaker’s choice of form and the hearer’s interpretation of this form in terms of optimization over a set of potentially conflicting constraints. To express a particular meaning, speakers choose the form that optimally satisfies the constraints of the grammar. In addition, a bidirectionally optimizing speaker will also determine how a hearer will interpret the chosen form. If the resulting interpretation is different from the meaning that the speaker intended to express, the speaker will avoid this form for the intended meaning and use an alternative form instead. Thus, bidirectional optimization allows us to simultaneously model the effects of interacting factors regarding linguistic choice and the requirement that the chosen form must be such that the hearer can recover the intended meaning.