Some casual reading of the literature shows that noun phrases in languages such as Afrikaans, English, Swedish, German etc. are more head-final than head-initial. While it is easy to show that non of these languages contain head-initial noun phrases, the case for being purely head-final is unclear, since their noun phrases permit modifiers to the right of the head, for example:

  • The cat that sits on the mat
  • A cook kneading dough in the kitchen

Is there a generally accepted classification of the "headedness" of Germanic noun phrases? (Some sources use the term head medial".) Are there works on the matter that is considered authoritative and generally accepted by the linguistics community?

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    Relative clauses are an exception. No language is 100% head-final or head-initial. (By the way in German one can also say The on the mat sitting cat and An in the kitchen dough kneading cook.) Sep 8, 2016 at 9:35
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    Hmm...but there are more examples where relative clauses are not applicable. Example: "The cat on the mat". Here a prepositional phrase modifies the head?
    – player.mdl
    Sep 8, 2016 at 9:51
  • Same for genitive attributes in German: der Hund des Vaters ("the dog of the father") is head-initial; the head-final reverse order des Vaters Hund (the father's dog) is arachic. Sep 8, 2016 at 10:08
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    @A.M. Bittlingmayer Why are RCs an exception? Sep 8, 2016 at 10:12

1 Answer 1


The NPs of all Germanic languages are head-initial. Headedness is determined on the basis of the distribution of complements, not modifiers; the distribution of modifiers only correlates with the distribution of complements.

(1) destroy the city

(2) the destruction of the city

The complement obligatorily follows the head. The contrast can be seen more nicely in German, where VP is head-final (3) while NP is head-initial (4), such that the position of the complement changes on behalf of the category of the head.

(3) die Stadt zerstören

  the city destroy

(4) die Zerstörung der Stadt

 the destruction of-the city

For further discussion I'd suggest looking into Haider (2004) on the matter. He's far from uncontroversial in general, but pages 782ff. illustrate a nice further contrast between German NPs and VPs which was previously discussed as the 'head-final filter': ungrammatical: die schneller(e) als Bolt Frau ('the faster than Bolt woman') vs grammatical: schneller als Bolt rennen ('faster than Bolt run'). These examples the English translations are supposed to show that the head-initial phrases do not allow, that the head of a modifying phrase is non-adjacent to the modified head. That is, it is not a general property of German to allow for non-head-adjacent modifying phrases, but it a property of its head-final phrases (VP and AP) only. This is just to illustrate one further putative difference between these phrases. Here's the doi-link, so it should be stable: Haider (2004).

Apart from Haider being controversial, I'm not aware of any researcher who claims that the German NP is head-final. Also note that the head-initiality of the majority of phrases among the languages of Europe was surely one of the main reasons for Kayne (1994) to claim that every phrase is basically head-initial.

  • The link doesn't seem to work?
    – player.mdl
    Sep 9, 2016 at 10:55
  • Thanks it works now! Do you have sources for the statement that headedness of phrases are determined not by modifiers, but by compliments?
    – player.mdl
    Sep 13, 2016 at 11:59
  • That's such a general thing, I guess textbooks will say such things, e.g., Adger (2003, Core Syntax). For German, we would have the growingly popular Open Access book by Stefan Müller: https://hpsg.fu-berlin.de/~stefan/Pub/grammatical-theory.html
    – aslakr
    Sep 13, 2016 at 13:44

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