query: left-right asymmetry in order variation

Jon Aske aske at EARTHLINK.NET
Fri Mar 6 00:36:16 UTC 1998

Dear Bingfu Lu,

In order to begin answering your questions, I think I would want to
incorporate the question of the reason for the different possible word
orders, rather than just look at the grammatical categories, the
stubbornness of English direct objects notwithstanding.

In particular, with respect to relative ordering of modifiers, it is said
that the relative "inherentness" of properties, or "relevance", in Joan
Bybee's terms, or just plain old scope, have a lot to do with what you find
and what is allowed.  In languages like Spanish, prenominal and postnominal
adjectives have different functions, as Bolinger discovered long ago.  So if
something is not allowed in Spanish adjective ordering, I would like to know
what the functions are first.

However, I must tell you that your judgement for the Spanish example in (b)
is incorrect.  That noun phrase should not be starred.  All the examples,
including (b) (see below), are perfectly good, as far as I can tell.

       b.      * el buen primer capitulo
                 the good first chapter

About the relative order of subjects and objects, that's a longer story, but
I have one such story that I would like to sell you :) (in the figurative
sense, of course).

I really do not think that you can say, for example, that in some languages
[Adv DO V] is preferred, whereas in others [DO Adv V] is preferred.  First
of all, what is meant by "preferred"?  Statistical preference?  But, more
importantly, what are the pragmatic functions of the DO and the Adv in
question?  Is the adverb a setting adverbial (as temporals and locatives
typically are), or a focal adverbial (as manner adverbials typically are).
Or is it neither setting nor focus, as adverbs sometimes are?  I really
don't think you can talk about the order of grammatical categories and
ignore their pragmatic functions of those units ("ideas") in the assertion.

Very few (VO) languages are probably as adamant as English about having the
object in immediately postverbal position.   But even for that, I'm sure
that there is a reason (not just a formal generalization).  That is also
probably why English has the dative shift construction and often places
focus adverbials before the verb, the prime focus position, as opposed to
immediately after the verb, typologically a secondary focus position.  Of
course, clause-final, or right-detached, is another possible focus position
in many languages, including in some OV languages, such as Basque.  We would
never know any of this, however, by just looking at the possible orders of
grammatical categories in the abstract.

I would love to hear what others on the list have to say about all this, so
I hope you keep the discussion public and the data flowing.

Best wishes,


PS Hi to everybody.  I haven't had a decent linguistics discussion since
Eugene.  Miss you all.

Jon Aske
Jon.Aske at salem.mass.edu - aske at earthlink.net
Department of Foreign Languages
Salem State College
Salem, Massachusetts 01970
Nere etxeko kea, auzoko sua baino hobea -- The smoke in one's house is
better than the fire in the neighbor's. --Basque Proverb.

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