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In another question someone pointed out, that at least some slavic languages use word order to express the grammatical category of definitiveness.

For instance in Polish:

This example has been flagged by some as incorrect, but my expertise is too limited to evaluate

  • maly pies a small dog

  • pies maly the small dog

Do you know futher examples of languages with free word order, highly flectional languages like Balto-Slavic, Ancient Greek or Sanskrit or agglutinative languages like Korean and Japanese with a free word order except for the predicate or others that use word order to convey some additional meaning?

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    The Polish example isn't correct. Generally word order in free word order languages doesn't express any category except for topic-focus articulation.
    – Atamiri
    Mar 17, 2017 at 23:45
  • By free word order, do you mean constituent order or the order of words within constituents? Because by free word order we generally mean the former, but your example belongs to the latter... Mar 18, 2017 at 4:02
  • Are constituents the same as phrases here? Mar 18, 2017 at 9:49
  • @AbdulAlHazred You can think of it that way, yes. Constituents don't always have to be phrases, but those cases are not really relevant here. Mar 19, 2017 at 4:15
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    @WavesWashSands While the Polish example is incorrect, I would dare to say there is actually very little free word order in Slavic languages exactly because the word order is used to express the topic/focus distinction and if you switch it, then the contextual meaning is different and phrase, while by itself grammatical, cannot be used in the greater context of the communication.
    – Eleshar
    Mar 21, 2017 at 21:20

4 Answers 4

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To my knowledge Japanese has the feature you are looking for, provided that you consider such things as topicalization and focalization to be good examples of "additional meaning".

In Japanese, the predicate is always final, while the order of the pre-verbal NPs is quite free. The topicalized or focalized constituent always comes first. It's equivalent to the cleft construction in English but with no special additional phrasing needed (explicit topic and focus markers can be possibly, but not obligatorily, used).

Some examples:

  • Ano mise de hon o Taroo ga katta "In that store, Tarō has bought the book"
  • Hon o ano mise de Taroo ga katta "It is a book that Tarō has bought in that store"
  • Taroo ga hon o ano mise de katta "Tarō has bought the book in that store"
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  • What is focalization? Mar 21, 2017 at 9:47
  • @AbdulAlHazred I am not sure this term does exist officially but what I mean is the sort of emphasis that you apply to a certain constituent in order to underline its communicative status of new information. In English you would use the cleft construction in such occasions: It is in this store that John bought that book. Mar 21, 2017 at 10:03
  • @AbdulAlHazred There is a relatively free positioning of the focused/topical constituents even in English, but only with adjuncts. Compare the following sentences: I went there yesterday vs. Yesterday I went there. Mar 21, 2017 at 10:10
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Not quite the same, but Russian reverses word order for approximate numbers:

Ему сорок лет (he-DAT forty year-GEN) "He is forty years old", i.e. you know or you are fairly sure about his age.

Ему лет сорок (he-DAT years-GEN forty) "He is about forty years old", i.e. you are not sure, he just looks like that, or you are rounding it to the nearest decade etc...

Let's leave open whether this is, could or should be a grammatical category.

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From German

German is a verb second (for main clauses)/verb final (for subordinate clauses) language. But when a put the inflected verb in the first position, you turn a statement into a question. Example:

Er geht heute zur Arbeit. (He goes to work today)
Geht er heute zur Arbeit? (Does he go to work today?)
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Ancient Greek has mostly free word order, but uses the position of adjectives relative to determiners to express whether they're attributive ("the good person") or predicative ("the person is good").

ho kalos anthrōpos
the good person
the good person

ho anthrōpos ho kalos
the person the good
the good person

ho anthrōpos kalos
the person good
the person is good

kalos ho anthrōpos
good the person
the person is good

The position of the adjective with respect to the noun (and similarly the noun with respect to the verb, and so on) is quite free, but the position with respect to the determiner affects whether it's an attribute or a predicate.

As a side note, this also holds true for other types of modifiers, such as prepositional phrases (and even sometimes relative clauses):

ho hypo tē elatē anthrōpos
the under the tree person
the person under the tree

ho anthrōpos hypo tē elatē
the person under the tree
the person is under the tree

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    I'm not sure I'd call this using a word-order difference to express grammatical categories, since the fundamental difference here is one of constituency (in the attributive examples the adjective is part of the noun phrase, in the predicative examples not). That difference is reflected in surface structure, but that's rather different from things like topicalization or the putative Polish example in the OP, which arguably move constituents around without changing their structure.
    – TKR
    Apr 27, 2023 at 17:23

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