Be Careful When Assuming the Obvious

Commentary on “The Placement of the Head that Minimizes Online Memory: A Complex Systems Approach”

in Language Dynamics and Change
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Ferrer-i-Cancho (this volume) presents a mathematical model of both the synchronic and diachronic nature of word order based on the assumption that memory costs are a never decreasing function of distance and a few very general linguistic assumptions. However, even these minimal and seemingly obvious assumptions are not as safe as they appear in light of recent typological and psycholinguistic evidence. The interaction of word order and memory has further depths to be explored.

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Haider (2009) provides a good translation of the fictional dialog between Gauss and Humboldt: “Linguistics? This is something for people with the pedantry, but not the intelligence, for mathematics. People who invent their own scanty logics.”

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