Word Order - Constituent Word Orders

Constituent Word Orders

of languages
SOV "He her loves." 45% 45 Japanese, Latin, Tamil
SVO "He loves her." 42% 42 English, Mandarin, Russian
VSO "Loves he her." 9% 9 Hebrew, Irish, Zapotec
VOS "Loves her he." 3% 3
OVS "Her loves he." 1% 1 Apalai?, Hixkaryana?
OSV "Her he loves." 0% Warao

Frequency distribution of word order in languages
surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in 1980s.

These are all possible word orders for the subject, verb, and object in the order of most common to rarest (the examples use "I" as the subject, "see" as the verb, and "him" as the object):

  • SOV is the order used by the largest number of distinct languages; languages using it include the prototypical Japanese, Mongolian, Basque, Turkish, Korean, the Indo-Aryan languages and the Dravidian languages. Some, like Persian, Latin and Quechua, have SOV normal word order but conform less to the general tendencies of other such languages. A sentence glossing as "I him see" would be grammatically correct in these languages.
  • SVO languages include English, the Romance languages, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese and Swahili, among others. "I see him."
  • VSO languages include Classical Arabic, the Insular Celtic languages, and Hawaiian. "See I him" is grammatically correct in these languages.
  • VOS languages include Fijian and Malagasy. "See him I."
  • OVS languages include Hixkaryana. "Him see I."
  • OSV languages include Xavante and Warao. "Him I see."

Sometimes patterns are more complex: German, Dutch and Frisian have SOV in subordinates, but V2 word order in main clauses, SVO word order being the most common. Using the guidelines above, the unmarked word order is then SVO.

Others, such as Latin, Persian, Romanian and Finnish, have no strict word order; rather, the sentence structure is highly flexible and reflects the pragmatics of the utterance. Nonetheless, there is often a preferred order; in Latin, 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. Such an approach allows the description of word order to be more easily extended to languages which do not meet the criteria in the preceding section. For example, the 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 S and O arguments both trigger the same type of agreement on the verb. Indeed, many languages claimed to have a VOS word order turn out to be ergative like Mayan.

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