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Summary Details

Query:   Verbal and Nonverbal Word Orders
Author:  Mark Donohue
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Syntax

Summary:   Regarding query:

Dear all,

A couple of weeks ago I posted a query asking about languages in which the
position of the subject of a nonverbal clause is different to that of a
subject in a verbal clause.

As an example, if a language was 'basically' VOS or VSO, but in a nonverbal
clause we find the basic order to be S Pred, and not Pred S, there's a

I have received two responses (plus Matthew Dryer's; I contacted him before
contacting LL).

Martin Kümmel writes that

'in Sanskrit, the basic order is SOV (in accord with a more general
modifier-head pattern). But sentences with nominal predicates, typically
without copula, the predicate normally precedes the subject'

There are many examples of S Pred order in nonverbal clauses too, however,
and the tendency for much of Sanskrit to be written in verse, and not in
prose, could well be distorting the picture somewhat.

Andrew Carnie, sensibly, says

'it depends on what you mean as ''non-verbal clauses''.'

and cites the case of Irish, which is VSO for verbal predicates, but
copular S Pred for ''non-verbal clauses'' (which I guess means that the
predicate is semantically nonverbal; but syntactically, there's an overt
verb in there).

This was not strictly within the bounds of what I was thinking about; I
mean genuinely no-copular-verb constructions (or, if your theoretical
upbringing insists, a copular that is phonologically null in all instances).

Another option that no one wrote in about, and which I wasn't looking for
but which wasn't excluded by the phrasing of my query, would be a language
in which the ordering of arguments of a clause is arranged with an
ergative/absolutive bias. Thus, for instance, in Paumarí (South America):

Soko-a-ki hida mamai.
‘Mother is washing.’ ([South America])

Joma-hi bi-khori-ki hida nami.
‘The dog is digging the earth.’

As I said, that's not what I was looking for; in effect, this means I'm
only examining verb-initial or verb-final languages, unless there are
complications with auxiliaries or adjuncts.

In this more restricted category I only know of the following possibles:

(Peeke 1962; a Zaparoan language of Ecuador)
* the basic order in clauses is SVO, but the S follows a nominal or
adjectival predicate. Other word order facts (Záparo has consistently
head-final order for modifiers in the clause, and is postpositional rather
than prepositional) suggest that there was a recent shift to SVO order.

(an Afro-Asiatic language of classical Ethiopia)
* basic word order in Ge’ez is VSO, but with nominal predicates the subject
precedes the predicate (Weninger 1993: 38).

(Western Malayo-Polynesian language spoken in western Indonesia)
* both S Pred and Pred S orders are attested for verbal and nonverbal
clauses. While an argument could be made for Pred S being (marginally) more
basic for verbal predicates, it is clear that S Pred is less marked for
nonverbal predicates.

Tukang Besi.
(Western Malayo-Polynesian language spoken in central Indonesia)
(the reason I started all of this)
* both S Pred and Pred S are found for verbal and nonverbal clauses, with
equal formal markedness, but different pragmatic restrictions. VOS is the
most basic order in verbal clauses, but S Pred is basic in nonverbal clauses.


Donohue, Mark. 1999. A grammar of Tukang Besi. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Massam, Diane. 2000. VSO and VOS: aspects of Niuean word order. In Andrew
Carnie and Eithne Guilfoyle, eds., The syntax of verb-initial languages:
97-116. Oxford University Press.

Peeke, M. Catherine. 1962. Structural summary of Záparo. In Benjamin F.
Elson, ed., Studies in Ecuadorian Indian languages 1: 125-216. Linguistic
Series 7. Norman: Summer Institute of Linguistics of the University of

Weninger, Stefan. 1993. Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopic). Languages of the
World/Materials 1 Muenchen: Lincom Europa.

LL Issue: 17.615
Date Posted: 24-Feb-2006


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