The Process of Word Order Change

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language goes through a lot of changes over time. While some changes such as sound changes and meaning changes are present in every language and take place temporally, there is also the concept of word order which is different from language to language. 

Stylized dictionary meaning of the word 'evolution'.
Language is an ever evolving, organic structure. While some changes take place over centuries, others happen around the globe in different languages, maybe even at the same time. (Image: Castleski/Shutterstock)

Word order is a concept that is so common that we use it, or its applications on a daily basis, without even realizing its importance. There are different types of word order, out of which English follows the SVO order.

The SVO Word Order

There are a lot of languages in the world, more than 6,000 known ones, and each language has its own idiosyncrasies. Word order is one of the broader characteristics which defines the very usage of a language. There are many, many languages in the world, including English, which use the SVO word order. SVO means subject – verb – object. 

It is highly likely that most people have been exposed to the subject predicate paradigm during the foundational periods of their education. While the concept of the subject part of word order is clearly ingrained in our heads, the other two parts of the word order also fall under this paradigm. Linguists talk about predicates, but more so, about the two elements of the predicate, which is a verb and an object. Together, these three elements form the SVO word order, which seems the most logical to English speakers. This order starts the sentence with the subject, mentions what it did, followed by to whom it did whatever it was doing. This ends up with us forming sentences as: The boy kicked the ball. Here, the boy is the subject, doing the action of kicking, to the ball. While this seems like the most natural way of speaking to English speakers, the truth is that SVO is not, in fact, the most common word order in the world. It is more likely that you will find an SOV language, where the order is subject – object – verb. 

For instance, German seems ‘quaint’ to English speakers, with the tendency of the verb to come at the end of the sentence, The boy has his first alcoholic drink had. In reality, this order is not ‘quaint’ at all, it is completely normal. Many languages follow this structure. Another such example is Turkish. In Turkish, if Hasan bought an ox, then Hasan the ox bought (Hasan öküzü aldi).

For a Turk who has never been exposed to English, perhaps the weirdest thing about the language would be the act of putting the verb in the middle of the sentence. This stands true for a lot of languages across the world.

Learn More about the story of English.

Different Combinations of Word Order

For a linguist studying an undocumented language, it would not be surprising to come across the SOV as much as it being SVO, if not more. In fact, SVO would tend to be the boring kind of word order, and having different word orders would be more interesting.

There are, for instance, languages where the verb comes first. Welsh and its close Celtic relatives, such as Irish Gaelic, Scotch Gaelic, and Breton, are verb first languages. They are VSO: verb – subject – object. That’s also true of languages of Polynesia, like Samoan and Tongan. In these languages, it is quite ordinary for the verb to come first. 

Using just S, V, and O, there are six possible combinations. One of the combinations, OVS, which is, object – verb – subject, was thought to be so wacky, that it would never be found. While it still seemed understandable to put the verb first, this object first combination seemed highly unlikely. Funnily though, it was discovered that there is a language in South America, and it is not the only one, where object – verb – subject is the default word order. 

One of these languages, for instance, is called Hixkaryana, and is spoken by a very small group of people, a sentence such as the man took the canoe  in this language would be canoe took person, or Kanawa yana toto. In this language, this is the normal way to speak. Such is the proliferation of language in our lives that if a Hixkaryana-speaking monolingual person was brought to our civilization, one of the first things they would have to learn is that people here speak ‘backwards’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Changes in Word Order Over Time

Similar to other elements of language, word order has changed significantly over time. While there is a lot of debate about whether SVO was the first word order or SOV, both possibilities are quite plausible. Regardless of the first word order, it has, over the years, given way to a great number of languages which have different word orders. 

In Old English, for instance, the word order system was very similar to the way it is currently in German. In fact, Old English was much more similar to German than it is today. So much so, that Biblical Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew are practically two different languages. Interestingly, one of the key differences between the two was the fact that Biblical Hebrew put the verb before the subject, whereas Modern Hebrew is SVO, much like Modern English. Here too, word order has changed over time. 

Writing in Hebrew on a stone wall.
Modern Hebrew, like Modern English, uses the SVO word order. This makes Modern Hebrew different from Biblical Hebrew, which would put the verb before the subject.
(Image: andersphoto/Shutterstock)

Learn More about language mixture.

The Process of Word Order Change

Linguists often claim that a language can start with any word order; it will likely change over time. The switch from SOV to SVO is quite common. In fact, it is quite frequent for a language which puts its verbs at the end to end up putting the verbs in the middle.

Looking at the change from an ethnocentric perspective is what makes us perceive a language’s evolution from SOV to what we are used to as completely normal. Some analyses even suggest that SVO has normalistic tendencies, and everything else is simply a deviation from the normal that may happen over time, and then too, not remain stable. Perhaps this view is strengthened by the fact that seeing a language go from SVO to SOV, a language starting to put its verbs on the end, is very, very rare, with the even rarer exception being situations where people speaking an SVO language start speaking an SOV language to the point that the SOV language starts to affect the original one. Therefore, it is mostly outside influence that creates the possibility of languages becoming SOV from SVO. 

Word Order is such a complex phenomenon, that some languages do not follow a set word order at all. One such language is the Warlpiri, from Australia. In Warlpiri, there is no fixed word order at all. The elements of word order, that is, subject, object, and verb, can appear in any order that the speaker desires. 

This idiosyncrasy is simply the way the language is spoken, it is not a personality trait of the Warlpiri speakers. Their language has, in fact, evolved to include suffixes that indicate whether something is an object or subject. 

The different types of word order and their evolution over time are clear indications of the greater process of language change. The fact that people around the world continue to make language their own, despite it starting from very few, maybe even one language, shows how important language is as a part of human culture. 

Learn More about how language changes.

Commonly Asked Questions about Word Order Changes:

Q: What is word order?

Word order refers to the order in which the subject (S), Object (O), and Verb (V) appear in a sentence in a language.

Q: Which is the most common word order?

While English speakers tend to think of the SVO word order, which is used in English, as the most ‘normal’, it is actually the SOV word order, used sometimes in German, and in Turkish, along with many other languages.

Q: Which word order was the first to emerge?

Although there are heated debates whether the SVO word order came first or the SOV, a lot of linguists agree that both theories seem quite plausible.

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