Word order, in linguistic typology, refers to the order in which words appear in sentences across different languages. In many languages, changes in word order occur due to topicalization or in questions. However, most languages are generally assumed to have a basic word order. That word order is unmarked. That is, it contains no extra information to the listener. For example, English is SVO (subject-verb-object), as in I don't know this but OSV is also possible: This I don't know. This process is called topic-fronting (also topicalization) and is extremely common. OSV in English is a marked word order because it emphasises the object.
An example of OSV being used for emphasis:
- A: I can't see Alice.
- B: What about Bill?
- A: Bill I can see. (rather than I can see Bill)
Sentence word orders
These are all possible word orders for the subject, verb, and object in the order of most common to rarest:
- SOV languages include the prototypical Japanese, Turkish and Korean, as well as many others using this most common word order. Some, like Persian, have SOV normal word order but conform less to the general tendencies of other such languages.
- VSO languages include Classical Arabic, the Insular Celtic languages and Hawai'ian.
- VOS languages include Fijian and Malagasy.
- OSV languages include Xavante.
- OVS languages include Hixkaryana.
- Others, such as Latin and Finnish have no "standard" word order (although in the case of both languages SOV is the most frequent word order), meaning that the sentence structure is extremely flexible.
It is not understood why word orders with the subject before the object are much more common than word orders with the object before the subject. It must be noted that in most languages there is the tendency to identify the subject with the topic (who or what is being talked about) and to place the topic at the beginning of the sentence so as to establish the context quickly.
Some languages can be said to have more than one basic word order. French is SVO, but it incorporates or cliticizes objective pronouns before the verb. This makes French SOV in some sentences. However, speaking of a language having a given word order is generally understood as a reference to the basic, unmarked, non-emphatic word order for sentences with constituents expressed by full nouns or noun phrases.
Phrase word orders and branching
- Main article: Branching (linguistics)
There are several common correlations between sentence-level word order and phrase-level constituent order. For example, SOV languages generally put modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) before what they modify (nouns and verbs), and use postpositions. VSO languages tend to place modifiers after their heads, and use prepositions. For SVO languages, either order is possible.
For example, French (SVO) uses prepositions (dans la voiture, à gauche), and places adjectives after (une voiture grande). However, a small class of adjectives generally go before their heads. On the other hand, in English (also SVO) adjectives always go before nouns (a big car), and adverbs can go either way, but initially is more common (greatly improved).
- Syntactic and Paratactic Word Order Effects (PDF) Analysis of different types of word order variations across languages. Technical, but contains non-technical appendix.
- The Language Instinct - Good general introduction to linguistics.