05 September 2007

Word order and what-not

I've recently been looking at some linguistic issues related to word order phenomena. This is somewhat inline with the implicational universals stuff that I am working on with Lyle Campbell, but also somewhat tangential.

Here's a little background.

Most linguists tend to believe in things like nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects and objects, genitives, adpositions (prepositions and postpositions), etc. Indeed, these are some of the basic building blocks of typological studies of word order. A common example is that languages that are OV (i.e., the object precedes the verb) are also postpositional (think Hindi or Japanese). On the other hand, VO languages are also prepositional (think English).

The general set of orders that are considered important are: V/O, Adj/N, Gen/N, PrepP/PostP and a few others. However, one of these is underspecified. In particular, PrepP/PostP tells us nothing about the placement of the embedded clause with respect to its head.

For instance, in English, which is PrepP, the head precedes the PP ("The man *with* the axe", axe comes after man). Or, in Japanese, which is PostP, the head comes after the PP (glossed: "the axe *with* the man" -- meaning that the man has the axe). However, it is unclear if other orders are possible. For instance, are there PrepP languages for which "with the axe" ("with" has to come before "the axe" in a PrepP language) precedes "the man", something like "with the axe the man". Or, are there PostP languages for which "the axe-with" comes after the head ("the man the axe-with"). I certainly don't know any, but I know enough about maybe 4 or 5 languages out of around 7000 to tell. It seems like interpretation in such a language would be difficult, but of course that doesn't stop German from separating verbs and auxiliaries and indeed Germans don't seem to have a hard time understanding each other.

A second thing that is left unanswered is how these relate to each other. Consider Gen/N and Adj/N. If you are a GenN + AdjN language, which comes first? In English, the Gen has to ("The man's happy brother" not "The happy man's brother" -- the latter means that it's the man, not the brother, who is happy). Is this reversible for a given language, or are the any languages that allow both? Again, it seems like it would make interpretation difficult.

I've asked the few typologists that I know these two questions and they actually haven't known. I'm hoping that a query to the blogosphere (a word I hate) and a query to linguist-list will turn up something. I'll post anything I hear here.

13 comments:

Kamadev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kamadev said...

Eh, and what about languages which have almost totally fluid word order, such as Slavic languages or conversational Arabic (if I am right about it...)? There, it's ok both to say "he gave it to me" or "to me gave it he", however, for instance Slavic languages seem to be perfectly prepositional.

Colin Batchelor said...

In Finnish you'd say "mies koiran kanssa"---the man with the dog, rather than "koiran kanssa mies".

Chris said...

Hal, I suspect you will find the work of Mathew dryer at SUNY Buffalo relevant to the issues of word order you blogged about. Here's his webpage:

http://linguistics.buffalo.edu/people/faculty/dryer/dryer/dryer.htm

Koos said...

Off the top of my head: standard work on typology is by Joseph Greenberg. I will leave it to everyone to look it up themselves.

Ritchie Kayne has theories that use 'directionality' (left-branching; right-branching of trees) and works it out in a Government-Binding framework.

Whether any linguist addresses your questions specifically I am unsure, but the above references will get you started.

Oren Tsur said...

Here is my token.
Hebrew allows a somewhat free order in many cases:
"hasefer ha'adom sheli" vs. "hasefer sheli ha'adom" both mean "my red book" (my=sheli, book=sefer, red=adom, ha=DET).
The first one is a way more common therefore ppl will tend to interpret the second sentence as stressing out that the book is red.

Similarly, "hasefer adom" vs. "adom hasefer" both mean "the book is red". Again, the second option is somewhat archaic and I can only imagine my grandparents use it although it's completely grammatical.

Yoav said...

It might just be my non-native English speaking, but aren't 2 of the examples of the "wacky-fluid-word-order-of-semitic-languages", namely "to me gave it he" vs. "he gave it to me" and "the book is red" vs. "red is the book" are all perfectly grammatical in English as well?

Kamadev said...

yoav: I am not a native speaker, but I am pretty much sure it's not grammatical... unless you're Master Yoda :-)))))

Katja said...

I think you might find "The Atoms of Language" by Baker interesting as it provides a convincing answer to the first question (it is also a very nice reading). For Baker, the diversity of word orders can be explained in terms of very general principles and parameters. In your example it is the head-directionality parameter which explains which orders are possible and which are not.
Here is an excerpt from a review on LinguistList:

"In Chapter 3, 'Samples versus recipes', more generalizations emerge, mostly
derived from comparisons between English and Japanese. The chapter
illustrates how differences in word order lead to a generalized account of
headedness in terms of the head-directionality parameter (head-first in
English; head last in Japanese). Other languages patterning with these two
options are also mentioned."

As for Slavic languages, many word orders are possible but usually only one of them is unmarked (e.g. only one can be used in the null context).

Sneha Gupta said...

It appeals to me as Anagram, or say Anagrams would be base of this. wherein the same set of words are framed n got all together a different meaning :-)some are just made for fun and some actually seems witty.

1) MARY ASTOR - A ram story. A rosy mart.
2) ROBERT BURNS - Robber's turn
3) SOUTH AFRICA - SAFARI TOUCH
4) GREENLAND - ENGLANDER
5) JOKER - O JERK

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