Colin Gorrie

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Basic Word Order

Basic word order refers to the order in which the major constituents of a sentence appear under ordinary circumstances. These constituents are: the subject, the (direct) object, and the verb. The ordering of these three elements correlates with many other aspects of a language's grammar, so describing a language's basic word order early is extremely helpful.

Because there are three elements, there are six possible orderings of them. But not all are equally common: in fact, the overwhelming majority of languages studied use one of two patterns. These common patterns are subject-object-verb (SOV; the most common) and subject-verb-object (SVO). One more order, verb-subject-object (VSO), is less common, and patterns much like SVO languages.

The other three orders, where the object precedes the subject, are extremely rare.

Flexibility

Languages differ in how rigidly they adhere to this basic word order. Some languages do not allow any deviation from their basic word order, while others allow multiple alternative orders. Russian is an example of a language with flexible word order.

Usually, the choice of word order in a given sentence is determined by pragmatic factors (e.g., focus: picking out an element of the sentence to contrast with something else).

It is also possible for a language to allow this kind of flexibility in word order to the degree that it can't be said to have a dominant word order.

Examples

SOV

Quechua: SOV

Mila-qa      vikuña-n-kuna-ta   riku-ra.
Melanie-CASE vicuña-her-PL-CASE see-AGR.PAST
'Melanie saw her vicuñas.' (283)

Mongolian: SOV

Xüü öcigdör   oxin-d  nom  ög-sön.
boy yesterday girl-to book give-AGR
'The boy gave a book to the girl yesterday.' (170)

Akkadian: SOV

Il-āt-um        ḫurāṣ-am ša      šarrim       i-ṣbat-ā._
god-FEM-CASE.PL gold-CASE.SG REL king-CASE.SG AGR.PAST-seize-AGR.PST
'The goddesses seized the king's gold. (20)

SVO

Swahili: SVO

Fatma a-na-m-penda      Suhail.
Fatma AGR-PRES-AGR-love Suhail
'Fatma loves Suhail.' (244)

Southern Min: SVO

Gua2 sang3 i1  tsit8-niann2 sann1.
I    give  him one-CLASS    shirt
'I gave him a shirt' (25)

Geographical distribution

SOV

Geographically, SOV order occurs worldwide, but is particularly dominant in:

  • Asia (except China/Southeast Asia and the Middle East)
  • New Guinea
  • North America (except the Pacific coast and Mesoamerica)

SVO

SVO order is dominant in:

  • sub-Saharan Africa
  • China/Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific
  • Europe and the Mediterranean Basin

SVO order is rare outside of these areas.

VSO

VSO order, although uncommon worldwide, occurs in several clusters:

  • East Africa
  • North Africa
  • Atlantic coast of Europe
  • Polynesia
  • North America (Pacific coast and Mesoamerica)

No fixed word order

Languages with no fixed word order are not especially common, but they tend to occur in:

  • Australia
  • North America

What is basic about basic word order?

When determining a language's basic word order, we look at the order used in statements (e.g. rather than questions) and in context where there are no pragmatic factors influencing word order. English is an SVO language (I eat pizza), but in certain contexts other orders are possible. For example, when contrasting the object of a sentence with another potential object, the object can come first: Pizza I eat but cake I don't touch..

Further reading

Matthew S. Dryer. 2013. Order of Subject, Object and Verb. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/81, Accessed on 2020-10-11.)

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© 2020 Colin Gorrie.