Linguistics: Word order in languages

Is there a categorical distinction between languages in which sentence word order is critical, vs not?

Years ago somebody told me that in German, you can say in effect:

“Throw the horse over the fence some hay.”

…but it’s confusing in English because word order is critical.

[Per George Carlin: “prick your finger” is different from “finger your prick.”]

Is this characteristic relating to the order or sequencing of words a fundamental category in linguistics?

Inflected languages like Latin are going to have a somewhat freer word order than analytic languages like Chinese. But even in Latin the word order is not completely arbitrary, and at the very least changing the word order might change the emphasis.

The History of English podcast discusses this somewhat – it’s not produced by a professional linguist, but it seems to be very well researched.

The Wikipedia article has some good information.

I’m no linguist, but ISTM that the easiest distinction to make regarding word order is between highly- and weakly-inflected languages.

I studied Attic Greek in college. Greek, like German and Latin, uses case to indicate grammatical roles. AIUI, case used to be a bigger deal in English, but is now mostly vestigial—like who (subjective case) and whom (objective case). Modern English has case for pronouns but not much else.

Because Greek is a highly inflected language, word order is a lot freer than in English. The Socratic dialogues are written with an Aaron Sorkin kind of sophistication, and Socrates’ points are often amplified by flexible word order—often, the most important word comes last. Or sometimes the word order is chosen in such a way to emphasize a double entendre. It’s clever stuff.

So yeah—as DPRK suggested, languages that use case to convey each word’s grammatical role will tend to have freer word order than weakly inflected languages.

It’s worth noting that one kind of nonstandard English syntax—that often used by native Yiddish speakers—draws on both German and Hebrew, two highly inflected languages, E.g., “How came it that I moved to Chicago was like this.”

I don’t know much about Greek, but Latin is also highly inflected. The main importance of word order in Latin is for associating modifiers: An adjective must be adjacent to the noun that it’s modifying (usually after, but it can be before) (and likewise for adverbs and verbs). This can still lead to ambiguities: For instance, “puer felix puellaque ambulatis” could be “the happy boy and the girl walk”, or it could be “the boy and the happy girl walk”. But you could remove the ambiguity, if you want, by changing the word order, such as “felix puer puellaque ambulatis”.

The story is told that some ruler once asked the Oracle what would happen if he went to war, and the answer used this sort of ambiguity to mean either “you will go, you will return, you will never die”, or “you will go, you will never return, you will die”.

Are you saying word order isn’t critical in German, or just that it’s different from English?

Thai is even more analytic and isolational than Chinese, and has extremely simple grammar. Simple markers like plural, gender, verb-tense are non-obligatory and used very sparingly. Yet here is a simple 4-word sentence (meaning ‘There are three buses’) where both SV and VS (or is it VO?) orders are possible.
Bus have three vehicle-item. รถบัสมีสามคัน /rot-bus mii sam khan/
Have bus three vehicle-item. มีรถบัสสามคัน /mii rot-bus sam khan/
Or is the 2nd sentence VO order? I think the verb ‘to have’ มี /mii/ has a usage like German ‘es gibt’ in the 2nd sentence. I hope the Board’s linguists will elucidate.

(‘Vehicle-Item’ /khan/ is a classifier used for spoons, vehicles, fiddle-bows, etc.)

The typology of word order tracks three essential things: subject (S), verb (V), and object (O).

English is SVO: We do that.

There are 6 possible combinations: OSV, OVS, SOV, SVO, VOS, VSO. Of these, almost all the world’s languages are either SOV, SVO, or OSV. The other three are rare or extremely rare. The most common word order among the world’s languages is SOV. Our familiar SVO comes in second place.

German is also SVO, same as English. Your example sentence is still SVO. The subject is implied “(You),” the verb is “throw,” and the object is “hay.” What makes it look funny is the adverbial phrase “over the fence” in the wrong place. We’re used to putting adverbial phrases in the beginnings or ends of sentences, but German and other languages may have you moving them to the middle.

That’s only possible because felix is of the uncommon sort of adjective that stays the same across genders.

That is such a neat finesse to have available in a language. I keep teaching myself Latin.


It’s *all *in the punctuation.

Ah, right, I should have used puer virque instead of puer puellaque. Gender sometimes helps with disambiguation (which is probably the reason why, grammatically, it exists), but not always.

Hm, not always eg: “multis cum lacrimis”

You ought to try American Sign Language. Arrangement of your words in space is critical, but order is less critical. Order is not unimportant, but facial expression is also important. You might say that two things happened yesterday, but your facial expression, and the orientation of the words in space, can communicate the specific order in which the things occurred. The fact that you said one first, and the other second, makes no difference. And there’s no use of prepositions as there is in English, as in “I went to school before I went to the store.” There is a word that is sort of diluvial, meaning you can indicate that one thing is really important, and all other events are either “before-X” or “after-X,” so that interpreters use the words “before” and “after”; therefore, the concepts exist, but not the words verbatim.

Basically, your information hierarchy goes something like this:

NMI (non-manual information-- mostly facial expressions)
placement in space**
inflection for duration (you perform ASL lexical items differently, depending on whether you did them briefly; once; more than once, but not much; repeatedly over time, with breaks; for a very long duration).
and finally,** order**; order tends to rank importance, not order in time; EXCEPTION: reciting a literal list.

Something is inconsistent there. Why not “puer felix puellaque ambulant” (or "puer felix et puella ambulant)

The aspect of German that is unusual for English speakers is the placement of the verb for tenses other than present. In the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” this is discussed

"And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence—‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. "

For contortions of word-order, nothing can beat Latin poetry, especially Horace.

From Ode 1.5:

me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
suspendisse potenti
vestimenta maris deo.
Word-for-word translation, without taking into account inflections:

me plaque holy
votive wall shows wet
hung up powerful
clothing sea god
Showing with colour which words belong together:

me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
suspendisse potenti
vestimenta maris deo.
More ‘normal’ Latin word order:

Paries sacer me tabula votiva indicat vestimeta uvida potenti maris deo suspendisse.
Literal translation:

A holy wall [temple wall] shows by a votive plaque me to have hung up [my] wet clothing for the powerful god of the sea.
Free translation into good English:

A votive plaque on a temple wall shows that I have hung up my wet clothing as an offering to the powerful god of the sea.
In the context of the poem this is only a metaphor. The poet compares himself with a shipwreck survivor making an offering to Neptune.

It’s actually a light and delightfully funny poem about a young man who has been dumped by his attractive girlfriend for someone else. He warns the new lover that, though she may appear shining and beautiful like a calm sea, soon there will be dark clouds and a storm, and he will find his ship on the rocks. In the last verse he reluctantly admits, in roundabout way, difficult to put together, that this has been his fate.

There’s a story, probably apocryphal, but still funny, about Mark Twain. Supposedly, he was at a terrible play written by a German (translated, I assume). His companions wanted to leave during the intermission, but Twain said “No! I’m waiting for the verb.”

You would actually say

Puer felix cum puella ambulat - The happy boy walks with the girl


Puer cum puella felici ambulat - The boy walks with the happy girl


Puer puellaque felices ambulant - The happy boy and girl walk together

ISTR reading somewhere that SOV tends to mark less mature languages and the more mature languages transition through SVO to, eventually, VSO (Gaelic languages tend to be VSO). However, I suspect this assessment may have been coloured with an ethnocentric lens, as the text seemed to be suggesting that SOV languages (of which there are very many, but not in terms of abundance of speakers) were less sophisticated.

I don’t think there is any correlation at all between word order (or grammatical complexity) and cultural sophistication.