But What Have You Done for Us Lately?: A Correction


Christopher D. Green

Department of Psychology

York University

Toronto, Canada


2002 by Christopher D. Green

In Green & Vervaeke (1997), we wrote that Portuguese is an VSO language. This claim occurred in the following passage:

Although the creole grammar does not reflect either the target or substratum grammars, Bickerton found that the grammars of creoles all around the world are remarkably similar even though they arise independently. Attempts to explain this in terms of similarities between target languages or substatum languages do not work. To take one example, creole languages are predominantly SVO (subject-verb-object word order) languages. One might account for this by saying that all the colonial powers were European and therefore used Indo-European languages. Although this might explain English- and French-based creoles, it will not explain Portuguese-based creoles since it is VSO, nor will it account for Dutch-based creoles since Dutch is SOV. If one tries to explain the creole word order system on the basis of a common African language family one is faced with the fact that recent research suggests that "the underlying order of a number of West African languages may well be SOV" (Muysken, 1988, p. 290). Finally, there is the particular case of the creole Berbice Dutch, spoken in Surinam. The substratum language it is directly related to is Ijo, a completely SOV language, and its target language was the SOV language Dutch. Yet Berbice Dutch is "still a straightforward SVO system" (Muysken, 1988, p. 290). Such evidence indicates that creole similarities are not based on features common to target languages or substratum languages.

I have recently been informed by Fernanda Jones (personal communication, 2001) of the University of South Africa, that the claim about Portuguese word order is incorrect. Portuguese is, in fact, an SVO language. The source of our earlier information was Pieter Muysken's chapter "Are creoles a special type of language?" (1988), in which he stated:


It is remarkable that the large majority of the Creole languages are strictly SVO. For the English and French Creoles this is not so surprising, of course, given French and English SVO word order. For Portuguese- and Spanish-based Creoles, with a lexifier language (the language that has provided most of the vocabulary) characterized by frequent VSO patterns, and for Dutch-based Creoles, with a lexifier language characterized by underlying SOV coupled with a verb-fronting rule, some explanation is, however, called for.


Now one explanation might be that all the substrate languages involved, e.g. the West African languages originally spoken by the slaves that were transported to the Caribbean, are SVO languages. Recent work by Koopman (1984) and others suggests, however, that the underlying order of a number of West African languages may well be SOV, with a verb-fronting rule applying in almost all contexts. In addition, Smith, Robertson & Williamson (1987) have shown that one Caribbean Creole language, Berbice Dutch (spoken in Guyana), is directly related to the completely SOV language Ijo, as well as being derived from an underlyingly SOV language, Dutch, and the result is still a straightforward SVO system:

(4) ek wajefi-a kali kali

I ANT eat DUR little little

'I was eating very little'


Jones has kindly informed me, however, that:


Portuguese is a pro-drop language and, as such, it allows null-subjects, although it is not obligatory to drop the subject pronoun. The use of the subject pronoun may indicate emphasis, or it may eliminate ambiguity, although it is possible to use the subject pronoun without emphasis being intended and even if its omission would not create ambiguity.


Like other pro-drop languages, it allows subject-verb inversion in some circumstances, although this is subject to various rules (it also allows other inversions, like, for instance, direct / indirect object - when these objects are not pronouns but fully lexicalized, the inversion is often for stress). Also, not all the rules governing Subject-Verb inversion are identical between Portuguese and Spanish, even though the two languages are very similar.


But, basically, Portuguese is an SVO language and this is the most common order. I'll quote (unfortunately in Portuguese and with all accents missing) from Maria Helena Mira Mateus et al., 1992 Gramatica da Lingua Portuguesa, Lisboa: Caminho:


"(i) O Portugues e uma lingua SVO, ou seja, e uma lingua em que a ordem basica de palavras e Sujeito - Verbo - Objecto(s)"


and I translate literally to allow you to follow the original text:


"Portuguese is an SVO language, i.e., it is a language in which the basic order of the words is Subject - Verb - Object(s)."


I must add, though, that Portuguese is more flexible with regard to word order than English.


It appears, therefore, that (1) we overextended the original information somewhat, from Portuguese being "characterized by frequent VSO patterns," to being VSO tout court, and (2) that this information was not correct, strictly speaking. Despite this mistake, however, the new information does not appear to have a great deal of impact on the point we were attempting to make at the time, which was concerned with the comparative word orders of creoles and their "target" languages. The example of Berbice Dutch still stands as a creole the basic word order of which matches neither that of its target nor that of its substratum language.



Green, C. D. & Vervaeke, J. (1997). But what have you done for us lately?: Some recent perspectives on linguistic nativism. In D.M. Johnson & C.E. Erneling (Eds.), The future of the cognitive revolution (pp. 149-163). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Also on CogPrints).

Muysken, P. (1988). Are creoles a special type of language? In Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey, vol. 2. Edited by Frederick Newmeyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.