Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.3, 252-258
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojml) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojml.2013.33033
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Processing Facilitation Strategies in OV and VO Languages: A
Luis Pastor, Itziar Laka
Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain
Received June 25th, 2013; revised July 28th, 2013; accepted August 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Luis Pastor, Itziar Laka. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Com-
mons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pro-
vided the original work is properly cited.
The present corpus study aimed to examine whether Basque (OV) resorts more often than Spanish (VO)
to certain grammatical operations, in order to minimize the number of arguments to be processed before
the verb. Ueno & Polinsky (2009) argue that VO/OV languages use certain grammatical resources with
different frequencies in order to facilitate real-time processing. They observe that both OV and VO lan-
guages in their sample (Japanese, Turkish and Spanish) have a similar frequency of use of subject pro-
drop; however, they find that OV languages (Japanese, Turkish) use more intransitive sentences than VO
languages (English, Spanish), and conclude this is an OV-specific strategy to facilitate processing. We
conducted a comparative corpus study of Spanish (VO) and Basque (OV). Results show (a) that the fre-
quency of use of subject pro-drop is higher in Basque than in Spanish; and (b) Basque does not use more
intransitive sentences than Spanish; both languages have a similar frequency of intransitive sentences.
Based on these findings, we conclude that the frequency of use of grammatical resources to facilitate the
processing does not depend on a single typological trait (VO/OV) but it is modulated by the concurrence
of other grammatical features.
Keywords: Basque; Spanish; Word Order; Pro-Drop; Language Processing; OV/VO Languages; Corpus
A central question in contemporary linguistic theory is to
what extent the properties of language result from conditions
imposed by processing demands. Thus, for instance, The Mini-
malist Program (Chomsky, 1995) assumes as a premise that
most properties of language derive from conditions imposed by
the Conceptual-Intentional (C-I) and Articulatory-Perceptual
(A-P) interfaces. Within psycholinguistics, the idea that proc-
essing requirements have a significant impact on the form of
sentences was first explored in the Depth Hypothesis (Yngve,
1960) that provided an account for the different incidence of
left-branching and right-branching structures in English based
on processing constraints. A decade later, Bever (1970) argued
that the form of language reflects general cognitive laws, in
such a way that mechanisms of language processing are one of
the factors determining grammatical phenomena. This issue has
been investigated from different perspectives by many research-
ers, mostly in psycholinguistics, and it continues to be a much-
researched area among linguists and psycholinguists; MacDonald
(2013), for instance, currently argues that production demands
heavily constrain linguistic output and typological choices.
The present paper seeks to contribute to our understanding of
the interplay between grammar and the conditions imposed by
the externalization of linguistic expressions, and it does so by
exploring the hypothesis that facilitation of processing in real
time guides the preferences with which languages with different
basic word orders resort to certain grammatical phenomena.
Of the six possible basic word orders (SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS,
OSV, OVS) (Greenberg, 1969), the vast majority of human lan-
guages are either VO (40.5%) or OV (35.4%) (Dryer, 2011).
These basic word orders correspond strongly with other word
order properties; in VO languages the genitive generally fol-
lows the noun, while in OV languages it almost always pre-
cedes it (Greenberg’s Universal 2). Several studies have sug-
gested that basic word order has an impact on language proc-
essing, i.e., that VO-OV languages tend to favor different syn-
tactic constructions, because they are more efficient to process
each language type (VO-OV). For instance, Hawkins (1994,
2004) argued that VO-OV grammars result from the optimiza-
tion of processing requirements. Hawkins proposed a general
principle, Minimize Domains (MiD), according to which the
orderings with the smaller domain are preferred in processing.
Thus, MiD predicts that VO languages will favor word orders
where short constituents precede long ones, whereas OV lan-
guages will prefer to place long constituents before short ones,
creating a mirror effect. Yamashita & Chang (2001) carried out
an experimental exploration of Hawkins’ hypothesis and found
a preference in Japanese (OV) for placing long constituents be-
fore short ones. More recently, Ros, Laka, Fukumura, & Santes-
teban (2012) conducted a similar experimental exploration in
Basque (OV) and also found a “long before short” preference.
Both studies lend support to Hawkins’ hypothesis that VO-OV
languages employ different constituent ordering strategies in
order to facilitate processing.
L. PASTOR, I. LAKA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 253
Ueno & Polinsky (2009) tackle the interaction between basic
word order (OV/VO) and processing constraints from a differ-
ent but not incompatible perspective, and argue that VO-OV
languages resort to different syntactic phenomena as strategies
to facilitate processing, and that these distinct patterns are re-
flected in the frequency with which they employ these gram-
Ueno & Polinsky (2009) follow the assumption that the verb
plays a pivotal role in sentence processing, because argument
relations are resolved when the verb is reached (Head-driven
model, Pritchett, 1992; Pickering & Barry, 1991; Pickering, 1993;
Trueswell, Tanenhaus, & Kello, 1993; Garnsey, Pearlmutter,
Myers, & Lotocky, 1997). According to this assumption, SOV
sentences should present an extra processing cost because two
arguments must be retained in working memory before proc-
essing the verb: the subject (S) and object (O). Ueno & Polinsky
(2009) hypothesize that OV languages will resort to some syn-
tactic phenomena (such as pro-drop, intransitive and others)
more frequently than VO languages in order to minimize the
amount of arguments expressed before the verb. In particular,
they argue that pro-drop (unexpressed arguments) and Intransi-
tivity might serve as strategies to reduce the number of prever-
bal arguments in OV languages. The former minimizes the num-
ber of arguments phonologically expressed, whereas the latter
minimizes the number of arguments required by the verb.
To test this hypothesis, Ueno & Polinsky (2009) conducted
two comparative corpus studies. A first study compared English
(VO) and Japanese (OV) written sentences, and it revealed a
similar frequency in the usage of pro-drop in transitive sentences
in both languages, and a more frequent use of intransitive sen-
tences in Japanese (OV) as compared to English (VO). The
second study compared the narrative production of native speak-
ers of English, Spanish (VO), Japanese and Turkish (OV), and
it replicate the results obtained in the first study: pro-drop is
used more often in transitive than in intransitive sentences in all
languages (Spanish, Japanese and Turkish) and intransitive sen-
tences occur more frequently in OV languages (Japanese and
Turkish) than in VO languages (English and Spanish). Thus,
whereas pro-drop is more frequently used in transitive senten-
ces in both VO-OV languages with equivalent frequency, in-
transitive sentences are significatively more frequent in OV lan-
guages. Therefore, according to this study, resort to intransitive
formats reflects an OV-specific strategy, directed at minimizing
the number of preverbal arguments in a sentence.
The Current Study
The present investigation extends Ueno & Polinsky’s (2009)
study, by comparing Spanish (VO) and Basque (OV). We con-
ducted a comparative corpus study of Spanish (VO) and Basque
(OV) aimed at determining whether Basque, presents a higher
frequency of intransitives as do Turkish and Japanese in com-
parison to VO languages like Spanish, while the frequency of
pro-drop would be similar in Basque and Spanish.
One main reason to pursue this study is to ascertain the gen-
eral validity of the results obtained by Ueno & Polinsky for OV
languages, and to explore Spanish in a larger corpus. Both Span-
ish and Basque can place subjects and objects after the verb, a
possibility not available in English, Turkish, Japanese and Ko-
rean. Furthermore, in the present study, the corpora employed
are significantly larger than those used by Ueno & Polinsky
Characteristics of Basque
Like Japanese and Turkish, Basque has basic SOV word or-
der (cf. 1a). However, unlike Japanese and Turkish, which have
strictly verb-final sentences, Basque may have postverbal ar-
guments (cf. (1c, d, e, f)) (Laka, 1996; Hualde & Ortiz de Ur-
bina, 2003; De Rijk, 2007; Erdozia et al., 2009).
1) a)gizon-a-k emakume-a-Ø ikusi du (SOV)
man-Det-ERG woman-Det-ABS see AUX
“The man has seen the woman”
b)emakumea gizonak ikusi du (OSV)
c)gizonak ikusi du emakumea (SVO)
d)emakumea ikusi du gizonak (OVS)
e)ikusi du gizonak emakumea (VSO)
f)ikusi du emakumea gizonak (VOS)
In addition, Basque is a pro-drop language, i.e., the argu-
ments that agree with the verb do not have to be phonologically
expressed. Both subjects and objects can be omitted (cf. (2b, c,
d, e)), unlike in Spanish, where there only subjects can be unex-
2) a)Ni-k zu-ri liburua-Ø ekarri dizut
I-ERG you-DAT book-ABS bring AUX
“I bring you the book”
ro zuri liburua ekarri dizut [subject pro-drop]
c)Nik pro liburua ekarri dizut [direct object pro-drop]
d)Nik zuri pro ekarri dizut [indirect object pro-drop]
ro pro pro ekarri dizut [subject, indirect object
and direct object pro-drop]
These two grammatical properties of Basque make it a rele-
vant grammar to investigate whether all OV resort to similar
strategies to facilitate processing. In particular, we seek to as-
certain whether Basque behaves like Japanese and Turkish using
a high frequency of intransitive sentences in order to reduce ar-
guments of the preverbal area, or whether this language will re-
sort to postverbal arguments as a specific strategy, not available
to Japanese and Turkish. We also seek to determine the status
of pro-drop as a facilitating strategy, by comparing the ratios of
pro-drop in Basque and Spanish.
A total of 2800 sentences from press and books in both Spa-
nish and Basque (1400 sentences/source × 2 sources) were ana-
lyzed for sentence type. Each source was divided into different
genres in both languages in order to have a heterogeneous cor-
pus. Press source was divided in 7 genres (business, culture, so-
ciety, politics, world, national and sports) (100 sentences/genre
× 7 genres × 2 languages); whereas books in 4 genres (comedy,
mystery, historical and non-fictional) (175 sentences/genre × 4
genres × 2 languages).
Matrix clauses of the sentences were manually coded for sen-
tence type, while adjoined and embedded clauses were disre-
garded. They were classified as either “Intransitive” or “Tran-
sitive”. The Intransitive category included intransitive verbs,
non-verbal sentences (adjectival and nominal), and demotion
structures (passives with or without the by-phrase, impersonals,
middle voices…) (Table 1). The transitive category included
L. PASTOR, I. LAKA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
transitive verbs with a NP object, transitive verbs with a CP
object and ditransitives (transitive verbs with direct and indirect
NP objects) (Table 2).
Types of pro-drop were also recorded: for Basque, subject
and object pro, and subject pro for Spanish (Table 3). When
coding Basque sentences, both direct and indirect objects were
included in the same “object” group.
In order to investigate the frequency of usage of pro-drop, a
Pearson chi-square test was run to determine whether the dis-
tribution of sentences with and without pro-drop for either “In-
transitive” or “Transitive” sentences for each language were
significantly different. Details of pro-drop types (S[ubject]-
drop and O[bject]-drop) were additionally recorded in order to
examine whether either language showed a higher rate of pro-
drop in transitive sentences as compared to intransitive sen-
In order to investigate the frequency of usage of intransitive
sentences (Intransitivity), “Intransitive” and “Transitive” occur-
rences were examined by means of a Pearson chi-square test in
order to determine whether a significantly different distribution
of these structures was found between the two languages. An
alpha level of .05 was used for all statistical tests.
Results of the comparative corpus study reveal that in terms
of the distribution of pro-drop, both languages make a signifi-
cantly greater use of pro-drop in transitive than in intransitive
sentences, thus replicating the findings in Ueno & Polinsky
(2009). In Spanish, pro-drop is used in 42.5% of transitive sen-
tences compared to 28.8% in intransitive sentences [X2 (I) =
28.626, p < .001]. In Basque pro-drop is used in 61.4% of tran-
sitive sentences against 19.9% of intransitive sentences [X2 (I)
= 260.445, p < .001] (Figure 1). This finding is also true for
each genre separately in both languages. In press, Spanish uses
34.7% of pro-drop cases in transitive sentences [intransitive vs.
transitive: 15.3% vs. 34.7%, X2 (I) = 35.090, p < .001]; and
Basque 49.4% [intransitive vs. transitive: 17.4% vs. 49.4%, X2
(I) = 83.122, p < .001]. In books, Spanish has 50.7% cases of
pro-drop in transitives [intransitive vs. transitive: 41.6% vs.
50.7%, X2 (I) = 5.826, p < .016]; and Basque 71.6% [intransi-
tive vs. transitive: 22.7% vs. 71.6%, X2 (I) = 178.871, p < .001].
Examples of Intransitive sentences in Spanish and Basque.
[El segundo encuentro] transita por los mismos derroteros
the second meeting go along the same.PLUR course.PLUR
“The second meeting go along the same courses”
[Errepide mapa bat lantzeko unea] [etorriko da]
road map one prepare.to moment. ABS arrive.FUT AUX
“The moment to prepare a road map will arrive”
Thor no [es un simple superhéroe]
Thor no be a simple superhero
“Thor is not a simple superhero”
Eta hau ez [da planteamendu estetiko bat]
and this. ABS no be approach esthetic one
“And this is not an esthetic approach”
[Estas rocas] [son transportadas] en dos grandes depósitos situados en la cubierta de la nave
theses rock.PLUR be transport.PART.PLUR in two big.PLUR tank.PLUR place.PART.PLUR in the deck of the ship
“These rocks are transported in two big tanks placed in the shipdeck”
Zelan [diagnostikatzen zen] orain arte epilepsia
how diagnose.PART be now until epilepsy.ABS
“How was diagnosed the epilepsy up to now”
L. PASTOR, I. LAKA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 255
Examples of Transitive sentences in Spanish and Basque.
with NP objects
S V O
[El edificio] tiene [una antigüedad aproximada de 70 años]
the building have one antiquity approximate of 70 years
“The building has been going for 70 years approximately”
S O V
[Herri honek] [premia izugarria] du,
people this.ERG necessity much.ABS have
“This people have a lot of necessity”
with CP objects
S V O
[El presidente Mohamed Hosni Mubarak] [ha decidido] [renunciar a su cargo de presidente de la República]
the president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak have decide.PART resign to his post of president of the Republic
“The president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to resign his post of president of the Republic”
S V O
Nik beti [esaten dut] [hau opari gisa hartzen dugula,]
I.ERG always say AUX this gift as take AUX.that
“I always say that we take this as a present”
S V O
[Esa fórmula] [ha permitido] [a inversore profesionales y a empresas de gran tamaño]
that formula have allow.PART to investor.PLUR professional.PLUR and to company.PLUR of big size
[alcanzar cierto de grado de cobertura en sus operaciones.]
achieve certain of degree of range in their operation.PLUR
“That formula has allowed professional investors and companies of big size to achieve a certain degree of range in their operations”
S O V O
Alemaniarrek [20 milioi euro] [zor dizkiote] [lantegi honi]
German.PLUR.ERG 20 million euro.ABS owe AUX factory this.DAT
“Germans owe this factory 20 million euros”
Examples of pro-drop types in Spanish and Basque.
ro examinó las lecturas de los diversos monitores.
examine.PAST the.PLUR reading.PLUR of the.PLUR various.PLUR monitor.PLUR
“(He) examined the readings of the various monitors”
ro kontuan eduki ditut euskalkietako eta garaian garaiko bereizgarriak.
account.in take AUX dialect.PLUR.of and age.in age.of difference.ABS.PLUR
“(I) bear in mind the differences of Basque dialects and from period to period”
[No examples attested in the Spanish corpus]
Santik pro bere alboan etzaten uzten zidan egongelako besaulkian
Santi.ERG his side.in lie allow AUX livig-room.of armchair.in
“Santi allowed (me) to lie down on the living room’s armchair”
When the usage of pro-drop in transitive sentences is com-
pared in both languages, significantly more instances of pro-
drop are found in Basque (75.1%) than in Spanish (58.8%)
[Spanish vs. Basque: 58.8% vs. 75.1%, X2 (I) = 32.791, p
< .001] (Figure 2).
This result departs from the general finding in Ueno & Polinsky
(2009). This difference in the distribution of pro could be due
to the fact that in Basque three argument-types can be unex-
pressed (subject, object and indirect object), whereas in all the
languages studied by Ueno & Polinsky (2009) were like Span-
ish, in that they only have subject pro-drop. In other words,
Basque would present a higher frequency of unexpressed ar-
guments because it can omit them in more cases. This explana-
tion predicts that the frequency of subject pro should be equiva-
lent in Basque and Spanish. However, when only subject pro-
drop is considered, Basque continues to show a significantly
higher frequency of pro-drop in transitive sentences (71.2%)
than Spanish (58.8%) [Spanish vs. Basque: 58.8% vs. 71.2%,
X2 (I) = 16.477, p < .001] (Figure 3).
Regarding the distribution of intransitive vs. transitive sen-
L. PASTOR, I. LAKA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Distribution of pro-drop in intransitive and transitive sentences in Spa-
nish and Basque.
Distribution of subject pro-drop in intransitive and transitive sentences
in Spanish and Basque.
Distribution of subject pro-drop in intransitive and transitive sentences
in Spanish and Basque.
tences, no significance differences obtain between Basque and
Spanish. The Spanish corpus yields a 50.8% of intransitives
sentences and the Basque corpus yields a 52.5% [Spanish vs.
Basque: 50.8% vs. 52.5%, X2 (I) = .824, p = .364] (Figure 4).
There are no significative differences in the analysis by gender:
press [Spanish vs. Basque: 49.4% vs. 54.3%, X2 (I) = 3.307, p
Distribution of intransitive and transitive sentences in Spanish and
= .069] and books [Spanish vs. Basque: 52.1% vs. 50.7%, X2 (I)
= .286, p = .593].
Again, this pattern of results does not conform to the specific
predictions in Ueno & Polinsky (2009) that OV languages should
present a higher frequency of intransitive sentences than VO
languages because intransitives minimize the number of argu-
ments before the verb in these languages. However, the Basque
data can be accounted for within the spirit of Ueno & Polinsky’s
general proposal, if it can be shown that Basque uses postverbal
placement as an equivalent strategy to minimize the number of
preverbal arguments and the processing cost entailed, a strategy
not available to Japanese and Turkish that are strictly verb-final.
I order to determine whether this is the case, we analyzed the
frequency of postverbal arguments in declarative transitive sen-
tences in our corpus. If transitive sentences with postverbal ar-
guments outnumber those with both arguments before the verb,
then it can be argued that the difference between Japanese and
Turkish on the one hand, and Basque on the other in the relative
frequency of intransitive sentences is related to the strict verb-
final constraint in Japanese and Turkish, which is not operative
Results show that in Basque only 27% of the transitive sen-
tences have two arguments (XPXPV) in preverbal position
against 73% with one argument (XPV) in the preverbal area
[XPXPV vs. XPV: 27% vs. 73%, X2 (I) = 82.368, p < .001]
As mentioned above, and unlike Japanese and Turkish, Basque
grammar allows placing arguments in postverbal position (cf.
(1c, d, e, f)), which we argue is a strategy to reduce the load in
the preverbal area in transitive sentences. As shown in Figure 6,
pro-drop (38%) and postverbal arguments (26.5%) are the strate-
gies most frequently used in Basque in order to reduce prever-
bal arguments in transitive sentences [SOV vs. postverbal: X2 (I)
= 8.817, p < .003].
The present study compared Basque and Spanish written
corpora in order to examine whether Basque, an OV language,
resorts to pro-drop and intransitivity in order to reduce the
number of arguments in the preverbal area, as predicted by
Ueno & Polinsky for OV languages in general, or whether this
L. PASTOR, I. LAKA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 257
Distribution of transitive sentences with two (XPXPV) and one argu-
ments (XPV) in Basque.
Distribution of pro-drop, postverbal and pro-drop/postverbal in transi-
tive sentences in Basque.
language presents different strategies not available in previous-
ly studied OV languages.
Regarding Pro-drop, the results of the present corpus study
show that the usage of pro-drop is more frequent in transitive
sentences than in intransitive sentences for both Spanish and
Basque, in accordance with the general findings in Ueno & Po-
linsky (2009). Pro-drop may facilitate processing because the
elision of a pronoun requires less cognitive resources than ex-
pressing it phonologically (Yamashita, Chang, & Hirose, 2005).
Moreover, null pronouns are easier to recover during the dis-
course since its references tend to have been mentioned pre-
viously (Kameyama, 1985, 1988; Walker, Iida & Cote, 1994;
Turan, 1998; Prince, 1999). Within this general tendency, how-
ever, our study shows that Basque uses subject pro-drop more
frequently than Spanish does. We argue this difference emerges
from the difference in processing facilitation that results from
subject-pro in each language. Recall that SOV sentences re-
quire to hold two arguments in memory before accessing the
verb, while SVO sentences require to hold only one. Hence,
omission of the subject would more effectively reduce the proc-
essing cost in SOV sentences than in SVO ones with respect to
the point at which the verb is accessed. As regards Intransitivity,
Ueno & Polinsky (2009) conclude that the more frequent usage
of intransitive sentences is a specific strategy in OV languages
to reduce processing cost. In OV languages a high usage of
intransitive sentences would minimize the short-term memory
cost, since only one argument is retained in memory until proc-
essing the verb (Pritchett, 1992; Lindsley, 1975).
The results of the current study, however, reveal no signifi-
cant difference neither in Basque (OV) or Spanish (VO) in the
frequency of usage of intransitive sentences as compared to
transitive sentences. When comparing Basque and Spanish col-
lapsed, no significant difference was found in the usage intran-
sitive sentences; both languages use intransitive sentences with
similar frequency. The result obtained for Basque in the current
study suggests that the high usage of intransitive sentence is not
a specific strategy used by all OV languages to minimize the
processing cost. Our results reveal that Basque uses postverbal
placement as an equivalent strategy to reduce the number of
preverbal arguments to be held in memory before the verb.
Taking together the results of Ueno & Polinsky (2009) and the
current study, we conclude that OV languages that do not allow
arguments after the verb use more frequently intransitive sen-
tences, whereas OV languages that allow arguments after the
verb tend to use more postverbal arguments instead of intransi-
The present study shows that: a) both in Spanish and Basque
pro-drop is used more frequently in transitive rather than in-
transitive sentences b) Basque resorts to subject pro-drop with a
significatively higher frequency than Spanish does; c) there is
no difference in frequency of usage of intransitive sentences in
these two languages; and d) in Basque arguments tend to be
placed in postverbal position as a main strategy to reduce the
The findings of this study provide support to the hypothesis
that basic word order correlates with the frequency with which
languages resort to certain syntactic phenomena. The frequency
of usage of grammatical resources in order to facilitate the proc-
essing does not depend on a single typological feature (OV/VO)
but seems to be modulated by the concurrence of other gram-
matical features, resulting in different profiles that depend on
the parametric combination of each grammar.
This study has been supported by the grant BES-2010-030196
awarded to Pastor and the project (FFI2012-31360) funded by
the Department of Science and Innovation (MICINN) of the
Government of Spain, and the project IT665-13 funded by the
Basque Government Funding is gratefully acknowledged.
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