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Love I Language 

click to enlarge H. Hammarström's 2016 analysis of sentence word order in 5,252 languages.


H. Hammarström's 2016 analysis of sentence word order in 5,252 languages.

"With this ring, I thee wed." These words are spoken some 2.5 million times a year in the U.S. — or up to twice that, when both parties to a marriage give rings. Notice anything odd about that sentence? "I" is the subject (S), "thee" the object (O) and "wed" the verb (V), for an "SOV" order. Which is unlike nearly every other sentence uttered in English, unless it's deliberately done for effect or emphasis.

English is one of the many languages whose usual word order is SVO, subject-verb-object (Andy loves apples), sharing this construction with about 40 percent of the world's 6,000-odd languages, including French, Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Russian, Thai, Vietnamese and Serbian. The other main word order is SOV (Andy apples loves), used by an estimated 43 percent of languages, including Japanese, Korean, Latin, Sanskrit and Urdu/Hindi. Language is a slippery construct and exceptions abound. Serbian, for instance, which normally takes SVO, can come in any word order, the declination (noun ending) letting the listener know what's what. Incidentally, babies in any culture usually use SOV until they learn the "correct" word order in their mother language.

What's left? Four other constructions are possible: VSO (loves Andy apples), VOS (loves apples Andy), OVS (apples loves Andy) and OSV (apples Andy loves). Strangely enough, to ears used to hearing good old SVO or even SOV, all these orderings can be found around the world. For VSO (10 percent), check out Hebrew or Welsh, while VOS (3 percent) is found in Malagasy and Baure (Bolivia). Near the back of the pack, there's OVS (<1 percent), found, for instance, in Apalai (Brazil) and (going where no one has gone before) Klingon. Finally, the very odd OSV is used by members of just 19 languages. I say "odd" because if we heard "man dog bit" we'd be baffled — who was the biter, who the bitee?

Why do the vast majority of languages — 84 percent — put the subject first? Because, according to linguists, when you're communicating something to someone, it's most efficient to start with what they already know. If you're telling them about Andy's proclivity for apples, you want to set the stage by first referring to Andy, someone known to both of you, that is, the topic of the sentence: "Andy" is old information. The new information that you want to impart, the comment, is Andy's love of apples. (Which is probably why we say, "Beth's pen" rather than "pen Beth's," Beth being the topic.) As linguist Dan Everett puts it, "Topic-comment is a natural communicative arrangement."

Incidentally, the word order in English changed after the French-Norman conquest in 1066. Until then, (Germanic) English followed the general German pattern of SOV: Er hat einen Apfel gegessen (He has an apple eaten). It's not black and white because you've got that auxiliary "hat" (has), but in general, German, from which Anglo-Saxon derived, is considered SOV (combined with "V2 word order," if you want to be pedantic).

Here's another word-order curiosity. An adjective is an adjective is an adjective, right? Wrong! In English (and most other languages), we have strict rules for how we order our adjectives. You'd never say, "a green, big house," nor "a bull, old elephant." Somewhere in our upbringing, we internalized the following order: quantity-opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material. Thus: "Two cute, little, old, portly, brown, French velveteen rabbits." Shape and age can often be switched, but other than that, the order is pretty much fixed — try changing it if you don't believe me. Oh, with the usual exceptions, as above. The bad, big wolf? Nope, that dude with the fangs will always be the big bad wolf.

Barry Evans (he/him, [email protected]), along with Yoda, fascinated by language is.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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