How free is free?: word order in Australian Indigenous languages

This project aims to address the fundamental issue of how the grammatical structure of the language we speak shapes the way we plan and interpret sentences. The project will use innovative methodologies to investigate language production and comprehension in three Australian Indigenous languages that have unusually free word order, where the words in a sentence can be varied in multiple ways without changing the overall meaning. Expected outcomes include new knowledge of the relationship between language structure and human cognition, a deeper understanding of the grammatical structure of three Indigenous languages and how they differ from other languages, and important contributions to Indigenous language maintenance and education.

We ran an experimental study with Murrinhpatha- and Pitjantjatjara-speaking communities, where we asked 50 speakers of each language to describe images such as the ones below. We found that speakers chose a wide range of different word orders. While they were speaking, their eye movements were also being recorded, as this provides a window into cognition. In English, for example, researchers have found that speakers mostly look at the subject before they begin speaking, indicating that their planning is focused on producing the subject first. However, in both Murrinhpatha and Pitjantjatjara, speakers look at both the subject and object in the earliest stages of sentence planning, indicating that they construct a more holistic representation of the event before they begin speaking. The pictures were constructed to have an equal number of human and non-human subjects and objects, and combinations thereof, so this can also tell us about how humanness affects speakers’ word order choices.

A complementary study looking at sentence comprehension is currently in the planning stages, and we are also planning to extend this work to Warlpiri. This project adds to our understanding of this feature of Australian Aboriginal languages, and demonstrates the importance of including diverse languages in psycholinguistic research.

An Online Platform for primary sources in Australian Indigenous language, Nyingarn aims to make as many manuscript sources available as possible - as searchable, re-useable textual documents.


Nordlinger, R., Rodriguez, G. G., & Kidd, E. (2022). Sentence planning and production in Murrinhpatha, an Australian ‘free word order’ language. Language, 98(2), 187–220.

This paper was awarded Best Paper in Language 2023!

This project has been approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of Melbourne (project ID 24278).

Project details


Australian Research Council Discovery Projects grant

Project Team

Chief Investigators
Professor Rachel Nordlinger
Professor Evan Kidd (ANU)
Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky (UniSA)
Professor Matthias Schlesewsky (UniSA)

Post Doctoral Fellows
Gabriela Garrido Rodriguez
Sasha Wilmoth