Free word order?

What does it do? How free can it be?

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Free word order?

#1  Postby lpetrich » Nov 23, 2012 6:46 am

Some languages are very inflected, with nouns and related words having separate endings for different syntactical roles. English is very limited, with only some personal pronouns so inflected, and having only two cases: nominative (subject) and oblique (everything else). I remember a Lithuanian linguist recalling learning as a child that English has no noun cases, and wondering how English speakers could understand each other.

English speakers can, with relatively fixed word order. However, speakers of highly-inflected languages like Latin, Russian, Lithuanian, and Finnish can easily vary their word order. From discussions of that variation, it is usually for emphasis:
Old information, then new information
or
topic - comment
theme - rheme
Is that typical?

One can get some of that effect in English by going into passive voice, I think:
The dog is chasing the cat.
The cat is being chased by the dog.

But does one usually avoid breaking up noun phrases and the like? Discussions of Latin word order sometimes mention broken-up noun phrases in Latin poetry:

Aurea purpuream subnectit fibula vestem (Virgil, Aeneid 4.139)
Golden purple ties brooch garment.
A golden brooch ties the purple garment.
What Is the Latin Word Order?
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Re: Free word order?

#2  Postby zoon » Nov 23, 2012 8:12 am

lpetrich wrote:
But does one usually avoid breaking up noun phrases and the like?

"To boldly go" seems to be winning the rearguard action against split infinitives, but they can still feel a bit odd.
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Re: Free word order?

#3  Postby Zwaarddijk » Nov 23, 2012 9:10 am

Most languages are said to have a word order even if their word order otherwise is very free - Finnish has SVO, and iirc Latin had SOV. The word order a language is assumed to have is not necessarily one that occurs more than half the time or anything such, but one that is used in what linguists call unmarked sentences. This doesn't mean there's no grammatical markings, it just means the content is presented as neutrally as possible.

Not all languages that permit relatively free word order have case marking! Many languages manage this by having a relatively fine-grained noun class system (i.e., something along the lines of gender, but even more fine-grained than the Indo-European three-gender system or the two-gender system common in Semitic languages and some IE ones), and having the verb inflect both for the noun class of subject and object.

So if we have a sentence with a verb, a subject, and an object, chances are the subject and object will belong to different classes, and the subject and object congruence marking on the verb will tell which is which; iirc, the Bantu languages are big on this (and it seems, iirc, to be a sprachbund phenomenon in that part of Africa, so even non-related language tend towards having the same type of grammar), but similar things can be found in some American languages and even elsewhere.

There are languages that neither mark it on the noun or verb, yet permit relatively free word order. English does of course permit shuffling the object into initial position under some circumcstances, but since the subject generally stays put in front of the verb, no problem is caused (I know that simplifies the situation).

In Swedish, however, a rule common to most Germanic languages, often called V2 operates. This rule says that the verb is the second constituent, no matter what.

This means we can say something like
Erik sålde bilen igår (Erik sold the car yesterday)
Igår sålde Erik bilen (Yesterday sold Erik the car)
Bilen sålde Erik igår (The car sold Erik yesterday)

The comparable English sentences would be Erik sold the car yesterday, yesterday Erik sold the car, and finally, either of as for the car, Erik sold it yesterday or the less common the car, Eric sold yesterday - this would be common in some rather marked thing like "The car, Eric sold yesterday. The couch, he sold today". (Forgive me for the contrived example sentences.)

In English, the unusual word order in those sentences is sufficient to give away which one is the subject and which the object
The kind of sentence where the object is fronted in such a manner is likely to occur in a context where the information structure already is sufficient to make the listener be able to figure out which one is the subject and which the object even in cases where it is not as obvious from the nature of the two nouns involved and the verb. Even indirect objects can likewise be fronted, and generally, confusion seldom occurs.

We do tend to know what kinds of subjects are likely to do what, and what kinds of nouns tend to be objects to which actions; some languages have made grammar out of that. Many languages do without either verbal or nominal morphology distinguishing the subjects and objects from each other. Such systems often go along the lines of hierarchies - often it's what's called an animacy hierarchy. The noun considered the more animate one is interpreted as the subject; some languages have morphemes which permit switching the way it goes. Some others have synonyms that are at different levels of the hierarchy.

Apparently, Indo-European did not have a distinct accusative case for its inanimate nouns (still notable in, say, Russian or Latin or German not having a distinct accusative form for their neuters, and Russian not having a distinct accusative even for its inanimate masculines!). However, some inanimate nouns were found acting on nouns of higher animacy, and the speakers wanted to express this in an unambiguous way. Water is one of the nouns that sometimes can be seen acting on things. An extra word came about that was higher up in the animacy hierarchy. This is why languages derived from Indo-European sometimes have a word related to Germanic water/wasser/vatten/..., Slavic vod, ..., and sometimes related to Latin aqua. Both of them probably were used with other case markings, but one was used for objects, the other for subjects of transitive verbs, both probably worked as subjects of intransitive verbs.

Some languages, finally, have free word order where even phrases are broken up. Latin and Greek poetry permitted this, but as far as we can tell it is unlikely this was widespread in spoken language, with maybe just a few exceptional phrases. However, some Australian aboriginal languages as well as some American languages seem to do it. (I have heard claims of some Eurasian and African languages, but never looked closer into them). There's a term, "non-configurational language", which seems to be used for a variety of languages with some quirks in their grammar. These quirks generally are of a syntactical nature, but different authors use the term somewhat differently, even such that some probably could be able to identify non-configurational features in any language. Anyways, the Australian languages where this is a notable and almost omnipresent feature tend to have extreme "suffixaufnahme".

Suffixaufnahme is a German term that signifies extensive case-marking congruence. Something like

"I bought the car you didn't want" would come out as
"I.nom bought the.acc car.acc you.nom.acc didn't.acc want.acc it.acc.acc"

or "I see my house from here" -> "I.nom see I.gen.acc house.acc from here"

once you have congruence such as this, it is easy to see how even if you shuffle around the words freely, you still can figure out which words belong to the same phrase by the case endings stacked on them. IIRC Kayardild permits up to four case suffixes stacked. I may be misremembering, but iirc Kayardild codes some other grammatical information in its cases as well, e.g. coding tense, aspect and mood on ~participle-like things by means of case endings. (This kind of feature is common in very many Australian languages; and yes, they even break up and shuffle subclauses around.)

Some languages encode other things than grammatical role by their cases - in Turkish, an object can be either in the nominative or accusative - nominative if indefinite, accusative if definite. In Finnish, the accusative case (which is identical to either the genitive singular or the nominative plural, or in sentences with no permissible nominative subject the nominative case) marks that the sentence is telic (a kind of aspectual distinction) and non-negative; any atelic, negative or various other types of objects are marked with the partitive case. Which also occurs for existential subjects (which, however, only occur with intransitive verbs so you never run into instances with partitive subjects and partitive objects). Russian marks some objects with genitive, for instance when a verb is negated or under certain other circumstances not entirely unlike those where Finnish uses the partitive. However, its masculine animate accusative is identical to the genitive anyway, so such a distinction only applies for nouns other than those. Russian case seems to be rather fascinating in some other ways though, and it seems colloquial and literary Russian have slightly different systems, where colloquial has been developing some fascinating stuff.
Last edited by Zwaarddijk on Nov 23, 2012 10:40 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Free word order?

#4  Postby Zwaarddijk » Nov 23, 2012 9:14 am

zoon wrote:
lpetrich wrote:
But does one usually avoid breaking up noun phrases and the like?

"To boldly go" seems to be winning the rearguard action against split infinitives, but they can still feel a bit odd.


Of course, that entire rule is a fabrication in the first place; the grammarians who made it up didn't observe it in action in English and document it, they made it up by analogy to Latin. Of course, that doesn't really break up a phrase any more than "red" breaks up "a car" in "a red car" either, as the adverb does not belong to a different phrase but is part of the infinitival phrase there.
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Re: Free word order?

#5  Postby Tracer Tong » Nov 26, 2012 3:15 am

This is an interesting topic. When I first started learning Ancient Greek, I thankfully was prepared from studying Latin when I was younger for the shock of word order becoming much less relevant to meaning. Others were not so lucky. The fact that Greek is so highly inflected affords authors great flexibility. For example:

...δράκων [snake] γενήσῃ [you will become] μεταβαλών [you will change], δάμαρ [wife] τε [and] σὴ [your]
ἐκθηριωθεῖσ᾽ [being made a beast] ὄφεος [of a serpent] ἀλλάξει [will change] τύπον [form],
ἣν [whom] Ἄρεος [of Ares] ἔσχες [you took to wife] Ἁρμονίαν [Harmonia] θνητὸς [mortal] γεγώς [though born].

...you will change and become a snake, and your wife, being made a beast, will change into the form of a serpent, Harmonia of Ares, whom you took to wife though born mortal. (Bacchae. 1330-1332).


The strange (for English speakers) word order is even evident in translation, as you can see. Note also that certain words must be supplied in English which are unnecessary in the Greek, as in "into the form of a serpent". Moreover, what Greek expresses in a mere 16 words English can only manage in 33!

Sometimes this sort of thing is used for rhetorical effect, but in fact a jumbled up word order is the norm. Interestingly, as Greek develops into the Koine, word order becomes much more familiar to English speakers:

Ὅτε [when] δὲ [but] ἤμελλεν [was about] προσαγαγεῖν [to bring forward] αὐτὸν [him] ὁ Ἡρῴδης [Herod], τῇ νυκτὶ ἐκείνῃ [on that night] ἦν [was] ὁ Πέτρος [Peter] κοιμώμενος [sleeping] μεταξὺ [between] δύο [two] στρατιωτῶν [soldiers] δεδεμένος [bound] ἁλύσεσιν [by chains] δυσίν [two], φύλακές [sentries] τε [and] πρὸ [in front of] τῆς θύρας [the door] ἐτήρουν [were guarding] τὴν φυλακήν [the prison].

But when Herod was about to bring him forward, on that night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound by two chains, and sentries in front of the door were guarding the prison. (Acts. 12:6).
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