Word Order - Finding The Basic Constituent Order

Finding The Basic Constituent Order

It is not always easy to find the basic word order of S, O and V. First, not all languages make use of the categories of subject and object. In others, the subject and object may not form a clause with the verb. If subject and object can be identified within a clause, the problem can arise that different orders prevail in different contexts. For instance, French has SVO for nouns, but SOV when the object is a pronoun and VSO for questions; German has verb-medial order in main clauses, but verb-final order in subordinate clauses. In other languages the word order of transitive and intransitive clauses may not correspond. In still others, the rules for ordering S, O, and V may exist, but be secondary to (and often overruled by) more fundamental ordering rules – e.g., for considerations such as topic–comment. To have a valid base for comparison, the basic word order is defined as:

  • declarative
  • main clause
  • S and O must both be nominal arguments
  • pragmatically neutral, i.e. no element has special emphasis

While the first two of these requirements are relatively easy to respect, the latter two are more difficult. In spoken language, there are hardly ever two full nouns in a clause; the norm is for the clause to have at most one noun, the other arguments being pronouns. In written language, this is somewhat different, but that is of no help when investigating oral languages. Finally, the notion of "pragmatically neutral" is difficult to test. While the English sentence "The king, they killed." has a heavy emphasis on king, in other languages, that order (OSV) might not carry a significantly higher emphasis than another order.

If all the requirements above are met, it still sometimes turns out that languages do not seem to prefer any particular word order. The last resort is text counts, but even then, some languages must be analyzed as having two (or even more) word orders.

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