Richard Futrell, Kyle Mahowald, and Edward Gibson have a new paper that looks intriguing: “Large-scale evidence of dependency length minimization in 37 languages” (published online before print PNAS, August 3, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502134112); the “Significance” box says:
We provide the first large-scale, quantitative, cross-linguistic evidence for a universal syntactic property of languages: that dependency lengths are shorter than chance. Our work supports long-standing ideas that speakers prefer word orders with short dependency lengths and that languages do not enforce word orders with long dependency lengths. Dependency length minimization is well motivated because it allows for more efficient parsing and generation of natural language. Over the last 20 y, the hypothesis of a pressure to minimize dependency length has been invoked to explain many of the most striking recurring properties of languages. Our broad-coverage findings support those explanations.
There are popularized accounts of it by Michael Balter at Science (“All languages have evolved to have this in common“: “All [languages] have evolved to make communication as efficient as possible”) and by Cathleen O’Grady at Ars Technica (“MIT claims to have found a ‘language universal’ that ties all languages together“: “The idea is that when sentences bundle related concepts in proximity, it puts less of a strain on working memory”); thanks go to Paul, Trevor, and Peter for the various links. I’ll be curious to see what the folks at Language Log have to say when they get around to covering it.