German and Dutch flags
German and Dutch flags

Crossing versus nested dependencies in Dutch and German verb clusters

1 June 2021
Project member(s)
Dr Frank, S.L. (Stefan) , Richard Futrell (University of California at Irvine) , Samar Husain (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi) , Himanshu Yadav (University of Potsdam)
Project type

In a Dutch sentence like "Timo heeft de atleet de marathon zien lopen" (Timo saw the athlete run the marathon) the final two infinitive verbs ("zien lopen") are in the same order as the two nouns "Timo" and "atleet", in that Timo did the seeing and the athlete did the running. This means that the two dependencies between each noun and its verb cross each other. This is very unusual in that only very few languages have such cross dependencies. In German, for example, the sentence translates as "Timo hat den Athleten den Marathon laufen sehen" -- here, the two verbs mirror the order of the nouns, and, consequently, the dependencies are nested instead of crossing.

In a classic study, Bach et al. (1986) found that the German sentences are harder to understand than the Dutch versions, suggesting that crossing dependencies are easier than nested dependencies. This is surprising because one would think that most languages would opt for the easier structure. Our project replicates and improves on the Bach et al. study, in order to test if the unexpected result indeed holds up.


  • University of California at Irvine
  • Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
  • University of Potsdam

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