Some languages use relatively fixed word order, often relying on the order of constituents to convey grammatical information. Other languages—often those that convey grammatical information through inflection—allow more flexible word order, which can be used to encode pragmatic information, such as topicalisation or focus. However, even languages with flexible word order have a preferred or basic word order, with other word orders considered "marked".
These are all possible word orders for the subject, object, and verb in the order of most common to rarest (the examples use "she" as the subject, "loves" as the verb, and "him" as the object):
Topic-prominent languages organize sentences to emphasize their topic–comment structure. Nonetheless, there is often a preferred order; in Latin and Turkish, SOV is the most frequent outside of poetry, and in Finnish SVO is both the most frequent and obligatory when case marking fails to disambiguate argument roles. Just as languages may have different word orders in different contexts, so may they have both fixed and free word orders. For example, Russian has a relatively fixed SVO word order in transitive clauses, but a much freer SV / VS order in intransitive clauses. Cases like this can be addressed by encoding transitive and intransitive clauses separately, with the symbol "S" being restricted to the argument of an intransitive clause, and "A" for the actor/agent of a transitive clause. ("O" for object may be replaced with "P" for "patient" as well.) Thus, Russian is fixed AVO but flexible SV/VS. In such an approach, the description of word order extends more easily to languages that do not meet the criteria in the preceding section. For example, Mayan languages have been described with the rather uncommon VOS word order. However, they are ergative–absolutive languages, and the more specific word order is intransitive VS, transitive VOA, where the S and O arguments both trigger the same type of agreement on the verb. Indeed, many languages that some thought had a VOS word order turn out to be ergative like Mayan.
Every language falls under one of the six word order types; the unfixed type is somewhat disputed in the community, as the languages where it occurs have one of the dominant word orders but every word order type is grammatically correct.
|Word Order||Number (2005)||Percentage (2005)||Number (2013)||Percentage (2013)|
Hammarström (2016) calculated the constituent orders of 5252 languages in two ways. His first method, counting languages directly, yielded results similar to Dryer's studies, indicating both SOV and SVO have almost equal distribution. However, when stratified by language families, the distribution showed that the majority of the families had SOV structure, meaning that a small number of families contain SVO structure.
|Word Order||No. of Languages||Percentage||No. of Families||Percentage|
Fixed word order is one out of many ways to ease the processing of sentence semantics and reducing ambiguity. One method of making the speech stream less open to ambiguity (complete removal of ambiguity is probably impossible) is a fixed order of arguments and other sentence constituents. This works because speech is inherently linear. Another method is to label the constituents in some way, for example with case marking, agreement, or another marker. Fixed word order reduces expressiveness but added marking increases information load in the speech stream, and for these reasons strict word order seldom occurs together with strict morphological marking, one counter-example being Persian.
Observing discourse patterns, it is found that previously given information (topic) tends to precede new information (comment). Furthermore, acting participants (especially humans) are more likely to be talked about (to be topic) than things simply undergoing actions (like oranges being eaten). If acting participants are often topical, and topic tends to be expressed early in the sentence, this entails that acting participants have a tendency to be expressed early in the sentence. This tendency can then grammaticalize to a privileged position in the sentence, the subject.
The mentioned functions of word order can be seen to affect the frequencies of the various word order patterns: The vast majority of languages have an order in which S precedes O and V. Whether V precedes O or O precedes V, however, has been shown to be a very telling difference with wide consequences on phrasal word orders.
There is a difference between grammatical word order and natural word order. In many languages, topicalization and questions can change the grammatical word order. Languages such as O'odham and Hungarian, which are discussed below, have almost all iterations of the sentences as grammatical, but not all of them are used. This surfaces in English and German as well, in question and answer sentences in Particular. Here is an example:
A: [Kate loves who/Who does Kate love?] (SVO/OSV)
B: [She loves Mark/Mark is who she loves.] (SVO/OSV)
In the (B) sentences, the first one is more likely to be used by a native English speaker. The second sentence is grammatical as well, but less likely to be said in natural speech. This is because English uses the SVO structure in regular sentences, but is able to answer questions using the same structure that was used in the sentence.
In German, however, the question and answer sentences follow a set structure:
A: "Liebt Kate Mark?" [Does Kate love Mark?] (VSO)
B: "Kate liebt Mark." [Kate loves Mark.] (SVO)
German, as opposed to English, has a very strict word order. In English, you can change the word order depending on what you want to emphasize. in German, stress and tone are used almost exclusively in which part of the sentence is the topic. as well, the question and answer sentences in the example have different word order. This is also because of the stricter word order in German: Questions are almost exclusively VSO, and statements are SVO.
Within the adpositional clause, one investigates whether the languages makes use of prepositions (in London), postpositions (London in), or both (normally with different adpositions at both sides).
There are several common correlations between sentence-level word order and phrase-level constituent order. For example, SOV languages generally put modifiers before heads and use postpositions. VSO languages tend to place modifiers after their heads, and use prepositions. For SVO languages, either order is common.
For example, French (SVO) uses prepositions (dans la voiture, à gauche), and places adjectives after (une voiture spacieuse). However, a small class of adjectives generally go before their heads (une grande voiture). On the other hand, in English (also SVO) adjectives almost always go before nouns (a big car), and adverbs can go either way, but initially is more common (greatly improved). (English has a very small number of adjectives that go after the heads, such as extraordinaire, which kept its position when borrowed from French.)
Some languages have no fixed word order and often use a significant amount of morphological marking to disambiguate the roles of the arguments. However, some languages use a fixed word order even if they provide a degree of marking that would support free word order. Also, some languages with free word order, such as some varieties of Datooga, combine free word order with a lack of morphological distinction between arguments.
Typologically, highly-animate actors are more likely topical than low-animate undergoers, a trend that would come through even in languages with free word order languages. That a statistical bias for SO order (or OS in the case of ergative systems, but ergative systems do not usually extend to the highest levels of animacy and usually give way to some form of nominative system, at least in the pronominal system).
Most languages with a high degree of morphological marking have rather flexible word orders, such as Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Latin, Albanian, and O'odham. In some languages, a general word order can be identified, but is much harder in others. When the word order is free, different choices of word order can be used to help identify the theme and the rheme.
Main article: Hungarian Language
The word order in Hungarian sentences is changed according to the speaker's communicative intentions. Hungarian word order is not free in the sense that it must reflect the information structure of the sentence, distinguishing the emphatic part that carries new information (rheme) from the rest of the sentence that carries little or no new information (theme).
The position of focus in a Hungarian sentence is immediately before the verb, that is, nothing can separate the emphatic part of the sentence from the verb.
For "Kate ate a piece of cake", the possibilities are:
The only freedom in Hungarian word order is that the order of parts outside the focus position and the verb may be freely changed without any change to the communicative focus of the sentence, as seen in sentences 2 and 3 as well as in sentences 6 and 7 above. These pairs of sentences have the same information structure, expressing the same communicative intention of the speaker, because the part immediately preceding the verb is left unchanged.
Note that the emphasis can be on the action (verb) itself, as seen in sentences 1, 6 and 7, or it can be on parts other than the action (verb), as seen in sentences 2, 3, 4 and 5. If the emphasis is not on the verb, and the verb has a co-verb (in the above example 'meg'), then the co-verb is separated from the verb, and always follows the verb. Also note that the enclitic -t marks the direct object: 'torta' (cake) + '-t' -> 'tortát'.
Main article: Portuguese Grammar
Main article: Latin word order
In Latin, the endings of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns allow for extremely flexible order in most situations. Latin lacks articles.
The Subject, Verb, and Object can come in any order in a Latin sentence, although most often (especially in subordinate clauses) the verb comes last. Pragmatic factors, such as topic and focus, play a large part in determining the order. Thus the following sentences each answer a different question:
Latin prose often follows the word order "Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Adverb, Verb", but this is more of a guideline than a rule. Adjectives in most cases go before the noun they modify, but some categories, such as those that determine or specify (e.g. Via Appia "Appian Way"), usually follow the noun. In Classical Latin poetry, lyricists followed word order very loosely to achieve a desired scansion.
Main article: Albanian Language
Due to the presence of grammatical cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and in some cases or dialects vocative and locative) applied to nouns, pronouns and adjectives, the Albanian language permits a large number of positional combination of words. In spoken language a word order differing from the most common S-V-O helps the speaker putting emphasis on a word, thus changing partially the message delivered. Here is an example:
In these examples, "(mua)" can be omitted when not in first position, causing a perceivable change in emphasis; the latter being of different intensity. "Më" is always followed by the verb. Thus, a sentence consisting of a subject, a verb and two objects (a direct and an indirect one), can be expressed in six different ways without "mua", and in twenty-four different ways with "mua", adding up to thirty possible combinations.
Main article: O'odham Language
In these examples, they are all grammatical. they are all variations on the first sentence, "The cowboy is branding the calves." with all of these examples being grammatical, however, some of the iterations of the sentence are rarely found in natural speech. this is discussed in Grammaticality.
Languages can change over time. In syntax, this is called syntactic change. This change can be shown in the differences between Shakespeare's English and Modern English. English has its roots in the Germanic languages, where the word order for yes/no questions is thus:
Leon: Well then, go you into hell?
A modern speaker of English would recognise this as an acceptable sentence, but would consider it archaic; that person would likely change the sentence to "are you going into hell?"—they would use the present continuous tense instead of the simple present. There are some verbs, however, that are acceptable in this format:
Leon: are they good?
This is acceptable to a modern English speaker and is not considered archaic. This is due to the verb "to be", which acts as both auxiliary and main verb. Similarly, other auxiliary and modal verbs allow for VSO word order ("Must he perish?"). Non-auxiliary and non-modal verbs require insertion of an auxiliary to conform to modern usage ("Did he buy the book?").
Poetry and stories can use different word orders to emphasize certain aspects of the sentence. In English, this is called anastrophe. here is an example:
"Kate loves Mark."
"Mark, Kate loves."
Here SVO is changed to OSV to emphasize the object.
Differences in word order complicate translation and language education – in addition to changing the individual words, the order must also be changed. The area in Linguistics that is concerned with translation and education is language acquisition. the reordering of words can run into problems, however, when transcribing stories. the rhyme scheme can change, as well as the meaning behind the words. this can be especially problematic when translating poetry.