Head-directionality parameter

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In linguistics, the head directionality parameter is a proposed parameter that classifies word order according to the placement of heads in phrases. Head directionality is also understood in terms of the direction of branching. One distinguishes between two major types of phrases:

Head-initial (= right-branching) phrases: Heads precede their dependents.
Head-final (= left-branching) phrases: Heads follow their dependents.

This assumes the language has a fixed word order in that part of its grammar to begin with. English and Romance languages are often given as examples of head-initial languages, whereas Japanese and Basque are often given as examples of head-final languages, meaning that these languages have a consistent word order across all areas of their grammar. For example, English, German, and Japanese each construct verb phrases in different ways:

English (head-initial): Kim has put the book on the table.
German (head-final): Kim hat das Buch auf den Tisch gelegt, dt.: [Kim-has the-book on-the-table put].
Japanese (head-final): Kimu wa tēburu no ue ni hon o oita (キムはテーブルの上に本を置いた), dt.: [Kim [topic] table [of (as in possessing the)] top [onto] book [object] put]
Sinhala (head-final): පොන්නයා මිනිහාගේ පයිය මිරිකයි.

However, this simple dichotomy runs into a major problem when used to classify entire languages in this way. Many languages, even considering only those with relatively fixed word orders, are not consistently either head-initial or head-final across different areas of their grammar. This fact means that it is hardly possible to classify languages as entirely head-initial or entirely head-final. Even languages that are considered strongly head-initial (such as French) contain certain head-final phrases, and vice versa: even languages that are considered strongly head-final (such as Japanese) contain certain head-initial phrases.

See also[edit]


  • Baker, M. (2001) The Atoms of Language
  • Radford, A. (1997) Syntax. A Minimalist Introduction