Word order affects the time course of sentence formulation in Tzeltal

Elisabeth Norcliffe, Agnieszka E Konopka, Penelope Brown, Stephen Levinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Citations (Scopus)


The scope of planning during sentence formulation is known to be flexible, as it can be influenced by speakers' communicative goals and language production pressures (among other factors). Two eye-tracked picture description experiments tested whether the time course of formulation is also modulated by grammatical structure and thus whether differences in linear word order across languages affect the breadth and order of conceptual and linguistic encoding operations. Native speakers of Tzeltal [a primarily verb–object–subject (VOS) language] and Dutch [a subject–verb–object (SVO) language] described pictures of transitive events. Analyses compared speakers' choice of sentence structure across events with more accessible and less accessible characters as well as the time course of formulation for sentences with different word orders. Character accessibility influenced subject selection in both languages in subject-initial and subject-final sentences, ruling against a radically incremental formulation process. In Tzeltal, subject-initial word orders were preferred over verb-initial orders when event characters had matching animacy features, suggesting a possible role for similarity-based interference in influencing word order choice. Time course analyses revealed a strong effect of sentence structure on formulation: In subject-initial sentences, in both Tzeltal and Dutch, event characters were largely fixated sequentially, while in verb-initial sentences in Tzeltal, relational information received priority over encoding of either character during the earliest stages of formulation. The results show a tight parallelism between grammatical structure and the order of encoding operations carried out during sentence formulation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1187-1208
Number of pages22
JournalLanguage cognition and neuroscience
Issue number9
Early online date17 Feb 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

We thank Antun Guzman Osil and Manel Guzman Osil in Tenejapa and Juan Méndez Girón at CIESAS, San Cristóbal de las Casas, for research assistance and transcriptions. We also thank Gilles Polian at CIESAS for research support. In Nijmegen, we thank Emiel van den Hoven and Frédérique Schless for help with the Dutch data collection and transcriptions, Gabriela Garrido for additional experimental assistance, Francisco Torreira for Praat scripting and Tilman Harpe for drawing a selection of the picture stimuli. Finally, we are grateful for feedback from audiences at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the
Department of Comparative Linguistics at the University of Zurich, the 2013 Annual CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing and at the symposium on ‘The Large Cognitive Implications of Small Languages’ at the 2014 American Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Meeting.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors
This work was conducted within the framework of the ERC Advanced Grant [#269484] INTERACT, awarded to SCL


  • incrementality
  • message formulation
  • sentence formulation
  • cross-linguistic comparisons of sentence production
  • verb-initial languages


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