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Language Building: Sentences and Word Order, Part One

Thinking about word order brings us firmly (probably) into the world of syntax — the study of how phrases, clauses, and sentences are formed. In this post, I’ll examine word order and the types of things to think about when considering the word order of your conlang.

Different Options

When we talk about word order, we tend to use abbreviations, so I’d like to explain what a few things stand for.

•S = subject

•O = object

•V = verb

These are not the only elements that can be present in a sentence, but these are the ones that people look at when discussing word order.

There are several different word order options with examples in natural language (six, or seven if you include free word order). These are:

  • SVO as in English
  • SOV as in Korean
  • VSO as in Hawaiian
  • VOS as in Fijian
  • OSV as in Warao
  • OVS as in Hixkaryana

These are not evenly distributed throughout the world’s languages; SOV, SVO, and VSO are more common, and VOS, OSV, and OVS are significantly less common.

In syntax, the subject and object are called arguments of the verb (which is like the center of gravity for a sentence). Some other arguments are prepositional phrases (PPs), adjective phrases and adverb phrases (APs), and adverbials. So where do these go? It depends on the word order your language uses.

In English, we place adjectives and adverbs before the elements they modify (for the most part), and PPs are placed after. Headedness — or where the most important word in a phrase is located — is important for word order, and this article on Wikipedia does a good job of explaining the basic concepts, but unless you need a really linguistically detailed language for your project, you may not need to go this in depth.

For most of my languages, I like to just pick a side and stick with it for each element. Since these are conlangs, you can do what you like as long as there’s a consistent “rule” in your language for it. So if you want all adjectives and adverbs to be placed after the elements they modify, go ahead.

Another thing to note is that it is possible for a language to use more than one word order. Even English, which is rather strict in its SVO word order (though the rule can be flouted for poetry), rearranges itself when questions are formed. You can choose a different word order for questions, and it’s possible to change structures outside of that context. Consider these questions:

  • What if the word order changes based on whether the clause is independent or dependent?
  • What if the “less important” words can move around as long as they’re on the right side of the most important element? Imagine if in your language, a speaker could omit everything but the verb, as long as the other elements are understood, as in Japanese. Or imagine that it didn’t matter how you arranged a prepositional phrase as long as it was on the left side of the verb. How could that affect the word order?
  • Maybe you want a free word order. Is anything constrained? If not, how can you tell what’s part of a phrase or what the subject or object is?

For my language, I want the word order for simple and compound sentences to be SVO, and when a sentence is a complex sentence like “I think that he wants ice cream” or “They said their goodbyes when they had to leave”, the independent clause will be SOV, and the dependent clause will be SVO.

So “ I have a family” would be: Ya varda[+1st person] hemeinna

I     have                      family

And “I told you that was new” would be: Ya nie carda[+1st person] [that] ianna[+1st person, +tense] ansch

The elements in brackets are those I haven’t developed yet — verb conjugations and relative pronouns. Next week, I’ll work on those and talk a little bit about free word order.

What do you think about when creating a word order system for a language?


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