Neutral versus Non-Neutral Word Orders in Inuktitut

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School of Arts & Sciences::Department of Linguistics::University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Julien Carrier

Word order in the Inuit language is relatively “free” (cf. Dorais 2010). However, there seems to be a consensus that the neutral order is SOV with oblique arguments appearing between the object and the verb, and that any deviation from this is triggered by discourse and stylistic factors (see Fortescue 1984, 1993, Tersis & Carter 2005). For example, arguments that represent new information or are heavy would tend to appear post-verbally. Furthermore, by comparing short texts collected between the 1820s and the 1970s, Fortescue (1993) shows that non-neutral word orders like SVO have become more frequent in more recent texts across all varieties, arguably due to contact with strict-SVO languages like English and Danish, which have had a strong influence over the Inuit population since the start of the 20th century. Yet previous studies on word order in the Inuit language display shortcomings. First, the statistical significance of the proposed factors has never been evaluated in any Inuit variety. Further, there is little detail given on what makes an argument heavy. As for the possible contact-induced change on word order, Fortescue (1993) acknowledges that the small size of his corpus and the varying characteristics of the texts may have skewed the results. This paper presents a study on word order in North Baffin Inuktitut based on a large corpus and using variationist sociolinguistic methods and shows that 1) the rise of Inuktitut-English bilingualism has in fact not affected word-order patterns in this dialect, 2) heavier arguments tend to appear post-verbally but newly-introduced ones are surprisingly favored pre-verbally and 3) oblique arguments surface after the verb significantly more often than subjects and objects, which are claimed to be topicalized arguments in the Inuit language (see Berge 2011, Carrier 2021). Given these results, I argue that word-order variation in Inuktitut is a stable variable mainly conditioned by information structure but also influenced by utterance planning processes (see Stalling & McDonald 2011).

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