3. INFORMATION STRUCTURING: FROM THE FIRST STUDIES
3.5. Word order
Researchers in different fields of linguistics have pointed out that languages differ from each other by the degree of constraints that the syntax imposes on other levels. It has been argued that some Finno-Ugric languages such as Finnish or Estonian have a relatively free constituent order (Vilkuna 1989), which means that the word order is discourse-conditioned or in other words mostly influenced by pragmatic needs, in comparison with some Indo-European languages where the position of the constituents determines their syntactic
function. These types of observations were made, for example, in the first studies of the Prague school researchers who compared some Indo-European languages and Slavic languages and made clear that the word order plays an important role at a pragmatic level in Slavic languages, whereas in languages like English or French the word order is mostly determined by syntactic constraints.
Issues concerning the relationship of word order to the processes of thematization have been discussed by Enkvist 1975: 69–73. He points to the well-established fact that word order variation takes place within certain limits allowed by syntax and discusses some more restrictions such as the syntactic island rule and avoiding the thematization of heavy and long constituents, among others.
From a textual perspective, this author stresses the role of Information Struc-turing (seen as a means of presenting of old and new information) in relation to the word order:
The sentence /.../must be provided with devices that plug it into the preceding text and make possible a contact with that which comes after. Textual fit is largely a matter of that information structure which signals what in the sentence is old and what is new information. (Enkvist 1984: 53)
A. Hakulinen 2001 (1976): 133–135 discusses the flexibility of word order in Finnish, analysing several constraints related to grammatical structures, and also proposes an overview of different modifications to neutral word order caused by thematic considerations. Among other phenomena, detached constructions are described. The need for final detachment is explained by two factors: first of all, the need for the speaker to clarify the referent, and secondly, the fact that the nominal constituent is too heavy to be placed at the beginning of the utterance, but nevertheless some support is needed there in order to be able to use, for example, a particle (han/hän) (ibid.: 133). In the case of initial detachments the author also invokes the possible difficulties of integrating the nominal element in certain grammatical structures of the main clause, for example due to the heaviness of the nominal constituent or the presence of several modifiers (määrite). This points to the fact that this construction is especially suitable for use with relative clauses that determine the detached nominal constituent (ibid.: 135). This author also draws attention to the fact that the investigation of non-Indo-European languages like Finnish still bears the influence of studies of SVO-languages with grammatically triggered word order such as English. The category of subject in Finnish is clearly less pervasive and is not assigned a position at the beginning of the sentence, as a consequence of which it is less plausible to look for the theme being expressed in this position (Hakulinen 2001: 222, 226).
Generally, in most (syntactic) studies it has become clear that the word order is greatly influenced by different parameters, such as Information Structuring
and different rules commanding the presentation of the information (heavier constituents moving to the end etc.).
These questions have also been of great interest for language typologists, especially after the publication of an article by Li & Thompson where they proposed a new typological approach according to the degree of marking the topic in languages (Li & Thompson 1976).
Ehala 2006 observes, for instance, that Estonian has a rare and marked word order SIOV (I stands for auxiliary verb) which seems to have been stable already for some centuries. From the perspective of universal language, the author suggests that instead of grammatical word order principles, the rules of coding given and new information are universal.
In Finnish linguistics, the questions of word order and the information packaging have been treated from different viewpoints. As one example can be mentioned the study of Hakulinen & Karlsson 1979 which deals with syntax from a transformational and textual perspective, using examples from written language. Different word order patterns are presented and the changes of word order are linked to the information packaging, among others: first, the basic word order can be modified in order to fill certain positions determined by the syntactic structure. The second principle described in this context is the one of giving the ‘lighter’ constituents first and leaving the ‘heavier’ constituent at the end. And thirdly are mentioned the textual connexions, such as the informa-tional status of the constituents (known/unknown), different connexions between the constituents, semantic relations, focusing (ibidem: 497–499). The Theme is defined in positional terms: it is the nominal constituent that precedes the verb. Other nominal preverbal constituents that can not be interpreted as themes, are presented as Topics (adverbials, framing constituents).
A special study is also devoted to the ‘free’ word order in Finnish:
M. Vilkuna’s study from 1989 analyses from a syntactic perspective discourse factors that impose constraints on word order in Finnish (word order being understood as constituent order at clause level).
In languages where the word order is more subordinated to grammatical constraints, the questions of the role of IS have been discussed, especially in relation to different constructions that are difficult to describe in terms of traditional syntax, such as detachment constructions etc. A well-known example comes from K. Lambrecht who defines from the perspective of IS the pragmatical word order constraint and, resulting from that, the generalized use of detachment constructions in French: since French spoken language avoids new referents as subjects, detachments and cleft constructions (il y a … qui) are frequently used in order to introduce new referents in discourse. More generally, this observation has been extended cross-linguistically in many works to oral speech in general: for example, Lambrecht (1987a: 218) has suggested that the canonical SVO order is not a predominant pattern in any language; a similar idea has been proposed by Du Bois (1987) on the basis of data from English and other languages.
This phenomenon has been linked to the principle of Separation of Reference and Role (Lambrecht 1994: 185) according to which one has to first introduce a referent and after that formulate a predication about it. This pragmatic principle is linked to the processing of information in communication:
From the hearer’s point of view, it is easier to decode a message about a topic if the task of assessing the topic referent can be performed independently of the task of interpreting the proposition in which the topic is an argument.
In a related area, Lambrecht (1988: 143), has analysed the presentational or avoir cleft (il y a le telephone qui sonne / J’ai les yeux qui me font mal, literally
‘there is the telephone ringing’/ ‘I have my eyes that are hurting me’) in French, arguing that French, as compared to English and Italian, has developed a ‘mixed strategy’. He compares ‘event-reporting’ sentences in the three languages, positing that, in English, the constraints of syntax win out over those of pragmatics while, in Italian, the reverse is the case. French, however, according to Lambrecht, manages a compromise, preserving a syntactically controlled basic word order while at the same time avoiding violation of constraints originating in pragmatic concerns (see Lambrecht 1988 for examples and discussion).
Similarly, it can be argued that the use of dislocated sequences for various pragmatic purposes (e.g. Barnes, 1985; Lambrecht, 1987a) achieves a similar compromise between the rigidity of a so-called word order language and the flexibility of languages with rich morphological components, such as Italian (Heilenman & McDonald 1993:185).
As will be shown in chapter 4, in Estonian linguistics, the informational aspect in linguistic studies has also mostly been used in studies about the constituent order, or more precisely, the constituent order has sometimes received an informational explanation.
Mention should also be made here of the studies of J. Perrot who began his theorization in this field back in the 1970s (1978, 1994a, 1994b) where he also adopts a more general perspective by underlining the fact that in a sentence, two main structurations make up the essential part of linguistic communications:
firstly, syntactical structuration and secondly, informational structuration. Perrot distinguishes three components: possible preliminary information (thème,
‘support’ in his terminology), new information (rhème, ‘apport’ by Perrot) and sometimes a third element (‘report’) that recalls a known information that is not specified in the rhematic part or that serves to disambiguate the previous message (Perrot 1994a: 16–17, 1994b: 37). In relation to the word order ‘liberty’, he claims that the coexistence of these two structures creates constraints that impose certain limits to this ‘liberty’ (1994a: 17). According to him, because of the communicational objective of human discourse, the informational structure of the message has priority over the syntactic structure of the sentence, but the informational aspect has to adapt itself to the syntactic constraints (ibidem: 30).
In this chapter some sets of problems that deal with the interaction between the level of Information Structuring and word order were briefly addressed; the researches about Estonian language that make reference to this association will be presented in chapter 4.