In some Austronesian languages, which typically lack inflection, subjects appear structurally identical to their objects. What constructs do Verb-Subject-Object languages use to distinguish the two?

  • 1
    Maybe it's just me, but can you elaborate a bit? I can't understand what you're talking about.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jul 22, 2012 at 21:02
  • You mean besides word order? Quite a few Oceanic languages index their arguments on the verb, which is another way of differentially marking their grammatical relations.
    – user483
    Commented Jul 22, 2012 at 22:39
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    Generally any way of marking the beginning or ending of a noun phrase so that the constituent boundary stands out will do when word order distinguishes arguments. Much the same perceptual solution occurs in English when speakers delete non-subject relative pronouns, leaving two NPs together as the signal for subordination, instead of needing a specific relative clause marker. I.e, The car Bill saw was red, but not *The car hit Bill was red.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 16:36
  • In Austronesian languages, for instance, NPs are normally marked with terminal determiners (e.g, itu/ini or -nya in BI, which is, granted, SVO), and that serves to distinguish them. In Lushootseed (VSO, but emphatically not Austronesian), only one full NP can occur in a sentence, though there are many pronominal inflections that occur freely, and many verbal inflections that determine the role of whatever NP may occur.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 16:42
  • Is all Indonesian considered BI (or Bahasa Indonesia)?
    – Lucas
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 23:29

2 Answers 2


Prepositions are one obvious answer. English doesn't need to mark its object because of its SVO order, but it does mark most other roles with prepositions, and you can easily imagine a language that marks its subject or object with a preposition.

Of course I say "preposition" as that's what's typical in VO languages. In Japanese, a moderately synthetic language with some peculiar isolating tendencies, just about all roles are (sometimes optionally) marked with postpositions (Japanese is an SOV language). E.g. from "neko" (cat):
"neko ga": subject
"neko wo": object
"neko ni": indirect object
"neko kara": ablative
"neko ye": lative

In something of a variation on a theme, non-particle words may be used as well. E.g. some of Japanese' relational postpositions ("kara" comes readily to mind) are thought to originally have been nouns, probably the heads of agglutinative genitive constructs. In Trique, an indian language that was probably originally isolating, possessed-case nouns are often used to mark roles. E.g. "body of" can be an object marker (not often used, primarily for disambiguation), "face of" means "to", "hand of" means "from", "stomach of" means "inside", etc.

Alternately, you could use a serial verb structure to reduce a transitive construct to a pair of intransitive cosubordinated clauses. This is also common in Trique. E.g. to say "He said to them" you would literally say "Said he heard they". Though this isn't a very good example (off the top of my head) because both of those have an object of their own: the thing which was said, which comes at the very end.

Yet another method I can think of (though the examples I know of are pretty highly synthetic) is an agency-based system. In such a system, both subject and object are unmarked, and the more agentive noun phrase is taken to be the subject and the less agentive the object; if this is not true in a particular clause, an additional "exception" morpheme is added. If you look at the declension of Proto-Indo-European, there appears to be hints of a system like this, perhaps preceding the well-known PIE case system: specifically, you see that animate nouns were zero-marked in the nominative in some declensions, and inanimate nouns were zero-marked in the accusative.


Not a VSO language but SVO. Hopefully the principles are still illustrative of what would be possible also in a VSO language.

I've just discovered that Khmer has a particle which marks the direct object. I don't think it's compulsory as I just stumbled across it in a word frequency list and looked it up in a dictionary. I'll check my Khmer textbooks this afternoon.


Two examples from the SEAlang Khmer dictionary:

The eye has a pupil which has the same function as a lens.

A person who does good deeds will reap good results.

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