In 3 Types of Languages I talked about how languages are categorised based on morphology (affixation and word formation)—now it’s time to look at how languages differ in their word order. In order to do that, we need to look at the order of the subject (S), verb (V) and direct object (O) in the sentence. We find that around 45% of all languages studied are SOV and 42% are SVO. Next are the VSO languages (9%), then VOS (3%) and OVS (1%). Among the 402 studied languages, no OSV language was found.
English is predominantly an SVO language:
The cat ate a fish.
S V O
Other SVO languages include the Romance languages, Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Vietnamese.
In an SOV language, such as Japanese, the object and the verb are swapped:
The cat a fish ate.
S O V
And so on, you get a general idea now. What is more interesting is that some languages don’t have a fixed word order. Theses languages usually have a a high degree of affixation in them, they are agglutinating or fusional (see 3 Types of Languages) and they mark case on nouns. Since English doesn’t mark case, the word order is very fixed, the sentence The cat ate the fish and The fish ate the cat have very different meanings. The only way to know which noun is the object in the sentence is by word order: it comes after the verb. Now take a look at the Hungarian sentence:
A macska megette a halat. (-t being the accusative suffix)
The cat ate the fish(+accusative case marker)
Since the noun has an accusative marker, i.e: it has an affix that shows that that is the object in the sentence, we can put it anywhere in the sentence without causing any drastic change in its meaning. By changing the word order though, we can emphasize certain elements:
A macska a halat ette meg (the cat the fish ate): here the object (the fish) is emphasized, the cat ate the fish (not the mouse, tomato, etc.)
Megette a macska a halat (ate the cat the fish): here the verb is emphasized, the action is important. The same idea is conveyed if we swap the nouns but leave the verb in first position:
Megette a halat a macska (ate the fish the cat)
A halat a macska ette meg (the fish the cat ate): in this case the emphasis is on the cat, the cat ate the fish, not the dog, its owner or anyone else.
I mentioned in the first paragraph that they couldn’t find an OSV language among the studied 402. By now, we know that they do exist but in small numbers and are in the Amazon basin and in the Star Wars universe: „Your father he is, but defeat him you must.” – Yoda.