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In recent years, a massive amount of attention in linguistics has been devoted to the variation within language varieties of grammatical structures caused by semantic and discourse-pragmatic factors, such as DOM and split ergativity. However, it seems that less crosslinguistic work has been done on differential adjective-noun order. I did some Google Scholaring, but only found a creolistics paper suggesting the historical origins of differential adjective-noun order, but not much else.

I was pretty surprised when looking at data from my field methods class, because it seemed that the intricacies of adjective-noun order in the language I'm studying (which is Tibeto-Burman) were very similar to French. The words for pretty, big and fat in the language are prenominal while most other adjectives are postnominal.

This led me to wonder if I am looking at a coincidence, or if there is a deeper connection going on. Thus I'll be glad if I can be pointed to some relevant literature in the area, whether in the form of a large-scale typological survey or a smaller-scale study that gives possible explanations of crosslinguistic tendencies in differential adjective-noun order. Thanks!

EDIT: To clarify: I'm not looking for crosslinguistic studies regarding canonical/unmarked A-N order and other word-order parameters. I'm looking for crosslinguistic tendencies of factors that explain adjective-noun order variation within languages (for example, is it common for colours to go after and size to go before, in languages with variable A-N order?).

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  • Are you talking about adjectives before or after the noun (or both, depending)?
    – Mitch
    Nov 14 '17 at 1:52
  • @Mitch: Yeah, that's what I was thinking about (thought I was clear in my paragraph referencing French, though I was probably wrong about that!) Nov 15 '17 at 7:54
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    always good to give explicit examples just so that it is more likely that every one is thinking of the same phenomenon.
    – Mitch
    Nov 15 '17 at 17:30
  • In general, the position of modifiers tends to go with the left- or right- branching parameter. e,g in Mandarin, most modifiers branch to the left (adjectives, relative clauses) but in Japanese everything comes afterwards. But languages are a mess: English is mixed, adjectives come/before relative clauses after, and French you noted some adjectives before, some after, and rel clauses after. Surely this has been studied in the syntax literature but danged if I know of any references.
    – Mitch
    Nov 15 '17 at 17:59
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As usual, WALS is a great start, explaining the different modifiers: genitives, adjectives, and relative clauses. And there are number of articles on the order of modifiers:

In general, the position of modifiers tends to go with the left- or right- branching parameter. e,g in Mandarin, most modifiers branch to the left (adjectives, relative clauses). But languages are a mess: English and German are mixed, adjectives come/before relative clauses after, but in French as you noted some adjectives come before, some after, and relative clauses after. Irish distinguishes between article and demonstratives location (the box = an bosca, this box = an bosca seo), and numerals are an effing mess (thirteen boxes = trí bhosca déag = three boxes -teen).

So the branching parameter should determine the order, but many languages just take it more as a suggestion or guideline than a rule.

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  • Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but Japanese is overwhelmingly left-branching, e. g. modifiers always come before heads.
    – pablodf76
    Nov 15 '17 at 22:59
  • @pablodf76 My mistake. I don't know Japanese and must have remembered that wrong. Removed. Any known languages where the modifiers are mostly right branching.
    – Mitch
    Nov 16 '17 at 0:04
  • Thanks, but I'm aware of this work - I'm not looking for the relationship between canonical adjective-noun order to other parameters, but differential A-N order within a language. Nov 16 '17 at 15:44
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    @WavesWashSands well, then, thesis topic set!
    – Mitch
    Nov 16 '17 at 18:05
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There's an oft-cited 1988 paper by Matthew Dryer dealing with adjective-noun order, most of which goes over my head, really, but the gist of it is that the purported tendency of VO (verb-object) languages to have adjectives that follow nouns, and conversely, that OV languages tend to be AdjN, appears not to hold at all if one excludes continental Eurasian languages.

There's also a list, with explanations, of those French adjectives which go before the noun, or that take on different meanings according to their position. For what it's worth, these adjectives, or ones very much like them, work in exactly the same fashion in Spanish and Portuguese. It also appears something like this happens in Italian as well, and also in Romanian. This covers basically all of Romance. I haven't been able to find a study linking this feature to its presumed origin in Vulgar Latin.

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  • Thanks, but I'm aware of Dryer's work - I'm not looking for the relationship between canonical adjective-noun order to VO/OV, but differential A-N order within a language. The second paragraph is closer to what I'm looking for, but I'd like to know if there are generalisations that hold crosslinguistically, rather than just the patterns in Romance. Nov 16 '17 at 15:45

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