Let’s make a language – Part 6a: Word order (Intro)

We’ve looked at nouns and verbs in isolation, and even in a few simple phrases. Now it’s time to start putting things together, using these small parts as building blocks to create larger, more complex utterances. To do that, though, we need to set a few ground rules, because there’s a big difference between a jumble of words and a grammatically correct sentence. We must have order.

You have a few different options for going about this. Personally, I like to take a “top-down” approach, starting at the level of sentences and working my way down. Others prefer the “bottom-up” approach, where you work out the rules for noun phrases, verb phrases, and so on before putting them all into a sentence. Either way is fine, but the bottom-up fans will have to wait to apply the lessons of this part, since we haven’t even begun to cover adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and all the other little bits of a language. (We’ll get to them soon, I promise.)

The sentence

Obviously, the biggest unit of speech where grammar rules actually come into play is the sentence. And sentences can be divided into a few different parts. Pretty much every one of them, for example, has a verb or verb phrase, which we’ll label V. Transitive sentences also have a subject (S) and an object (O); both of these are typically noun phrases. Intransitives, as you’ll recall, only have one argument, which we’ll also call the subject. There are also oblique phrases, which are sort of like an adverb; these will come into play a bit later, where we’ll label them X, following the convention in WALS Chapter 84. Some other kinds of phrases, like prepositions, quoted speech, and conjunctions, don’t really factor into the main word order, so we’ll look at them as they come up.

Given a basic transitive sentence, then, we have three main parts: S, V, and O. A simple count should show you that there are six possibilities of ordering them, and every one of those six is attested by some natural language in the world. The SVO order (subject-verb-object) is certainly familiar, as it’s the one used in English. SOV shows up in a number of European languages, and it’s also the main order in Japanese. The others will likely sound “off” to you; OSV and VOS, for example, are utterly alien to Western ears, which is why they were used to make Yoda sound alien.

In terms of statistics, SVO and SOV are about even around the world, SOV having a slight edge. The two of them together account for somewhere around 80% of all natural languages. VSO is a distant third, at about 10-15%, but you’ll no doubt recognized some of those: Arabic, Welsh, Irish, and Tagalog, among many others. These three, a total of over 90% or the world’s languages, all have one thing in common: the subject comes before the object.

The rest of the possibilities, where the object comes first, are much rarer, and many of those languages also allow a more common subject-first ordering. Of the three, VOS is the most common in the WALS survey, with such examples as Kiribati and Malagasy. OVS, the mirror image of English, is listed as the main form in eleven languages, including such notables as Hixkaryana and Tuvaluan. OSV, in their survey of over 1,300 languages (about a quarter of the world’s total), only shows up as dominant in Kxoe, Nad√ęb, Tobati, and Wik Ngathana, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of them.

Conlangs have a slightly different distribution, owing to the artistic differences of their authors. According to CALS, the conlang counterpart to WALS, SVO has a narrow edge over SOV, but VSO is much more common than in the real world. The object-first trio also makes up a bigger percentage, but it’s still vastly outnumbered by the subject-first languages.

It’s certainly possible for a language to have no main word order for its sentences. This tends to be the case (pardon the pun) in languages that have case systems, but it’s also possible in caseless languages. There are even a few languages where there are two major word orders. German is an example of this; it’s normally SVO, but many sentences with more complex verb phrases often push the main verb to the end, effectively becoming SOV.

Now, in intransitive sentences, things can change a little bit. Since there’s no real object, you only have two possibilities: SV and VS. SV, as you might expect, is vastly more popular (about 6:1). But the distinct minority of VS languages also includes many of the ergative languages, which are normally SOV or SVO. Ergative languages often treat the subject of an intransitive verb like the direct object of a transitive one, so a VS order almost makes sense.

Noun phrases

Moving on, we’ll go down a level and look at those subject and object phrases. Since we haven’t quite made it to adjectives and the like, this will necessarily be a bit abstract. In general, though, noun phrases aren’t exactly like sentences. They have a head noun, the main part of the phrase, and a bunch of potential modifiers to that head. These modifiers can go either before or after the head, and their order (relative to each other) is often fixed. For example, English allows a noun phrase like the three big men, with an article, numeral, and an adjective all preceding the noun. No other permutation of these four elements is grammatically correct, though. We can’t say the big three men; the big three is okay, but then three becomes the head noun.

So we’ll have to do things a little different for this section. Instead of showing all the possible orderings of all the different parts of a noun phrase, we’ll look at each one individually.

  • Articles: Articles are a little weird. If they’re separate words, they’re often the first part of a noun phrase. If they’re suffixes or similar, then they’re last. And then you have something like Arabic, where the article is a prefix that attaches to both the nouns and adjectives in a phrase.

  • Adjectives: The topic of the next part of this series, adjectives are the main modifier words. English is actually in a minority by having its adjectives precede nouns, but it’s a sizable minority: about 25%. Noun-adjective languages make up about 60%, and there’s also a group that allows either possibility. But this tends to run in families. All the Germanic languages like adjectives first, but the Romance ones are the other way around.

  • Demonstratives: These are words like this in this man. Here, it’s too close to call. (Seriously, WALS has it as 561-542 in favor of demonstratives after nouns.) Again, though, it’s very much a familial trait. The only following-demonstrative languages in Europe are a few Celtic languages and Basque, which is always the outlier. Most of Southeast Asia, on the other hand, likes their demonstratives to be last.

  • Numerals: The “number” words are another close split, but not quite even. Call it 55-45, with following numerals having the lead. However, you could say this is due to politics. Africa, Asia, and New Guinea, with their vast numbers of languages, tip the scales. Europe, with its large, united, national languages, is universally numerals-first.

  • Genitives: This means any kind of possession, ownership, kinship, and a few other categories, not necessarily the genitive case. Genitives tend to come before nouns, again around 55%. English is among the rarities by having two different versions, one on either side of the divide: Jack’s house, the home of the brave. This one is actually somewhat related to sentence order; VO languages tend to have noun-genitive ordering, while OV languages are more likely to be genitive-first.

  • Relative clauses: We won’t be covering these for a long time, but we can already see where they’ll go. Overwhelmingly, it turns out, they go after the noun. It’s possible to have them before the noun, though, and there’s one example in Europe. (Guess which one.) It’s more common in Asia, except the Middle East. Some Native American languages even do a weird thing where they put the head noun inside the relative clause. You’ll have to look that one up yourself, or wait until the big “relative clauses” post in about three months.

Other phrases

There aren’t too many options for other phrases. Verb phrases have the option of putting adverbs before or after the head verb, the same as adjectives and nouns. Adjectives themselves can be modified, and they then become the head of their own adjective phrase, with its own order.

One case that is interesting is that of prepositions. These are the little words like in or short phrases like in front of, and we’ll see a lot more of them soon. They’re actually the heads of their own type of phrase, known in English as the prepositional phrase. And in English, they precede the rest of that phrase: at the house, in front of the car.

Well, that’s not the only option. You can also put the preposition at the end of its phrase, and this is more common in the world’s languages. Of course, then the name “preposition” doesn’t make much sense, so these are called postpositions. They’re not common in Europe, except in the non-Indo-European parts (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and—naturally—Basque). Most of India likes them, though, as do Iran, Georgia, and Armenia. They’re also popular among the many languages of South America.


Basically, any time you have more than one word, you have word order. Some languages don’t make much of a fuss about it. Cases let you be free in your wording, because it doesn’t matter where an object goes if it always has an accusative suffix on it. French and Spanish allow some adjectives before the noun (e.g., grand prix), even though most of them have to follow it. And poets have made a living breaking the rules. Conlangers, really, aren’t much different.

But rules can be helpful, too. If every sentence ends with a verb, then you always know when you’ve reached the end. (There’s a joke about a German professor in here, but I don’t remember all of it.) For conlangs, word order rules become a kind of template. I know my language is VSO, for example, so I can look at real-world VSO languages for inspiration. Those tend to have prepositions, so my language will, too, because I want it to feel natural. Auxiliary languages are even more in need of hard and fast rules about word order, and they will certainly want to follow the observed connections.

In the next post, we’ll look at how Isian and Ardari put their sentences and phrases together. Then, it’s on to adjectives, the third jewel in the linguistic Triple Crown.

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