Something I see from time to time is the proportion of words from various sources, e.g. English has about 29% French, 29% Latin, 26% Germanic and 6% Greek words. I've never seen anything similar with grammar.

One of the languages I'm learning at the moment is Norwegian, and I'm constantly amazed at how often the word order is identical to English, taking into account minor differences such as the Norwegian definite article being suffixed to the noun, instead of being preceded by a separate word in English.

I would have expected English grammar to be closer to Dutch and German since all three are West Germanic languages, and Norwegian is a North Germanic language, although there was a heavy Old Norse influence on Old English. From my own experience it seems that English grammar is closer to Norwegian than Dutch or German, and this is something I'd like to learn more about.

Is this something that is studied? The comparative similarity between two languages' grammars? If so, what is it called?

  • Yes, the Lexical distance can be measured. Nov 20, 2017 at 22:14
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    @bytebuster I'm not sure that's measuring the same thing. I don't find Norwegian particularly intelligible with English as I have to translate most words, i.e. the vocabulary is quite different. What I'm finding is that a naïve literal translation will often yield the most natural English, whereas Dutch and German will sound unnatural.
    – CJ Dennis
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:23
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    @bytebuster the OP is specifically asking for measures that are not based on lexicon but on grammar. I don't think there is, or can be, such a thing as a single measure of grammatical similarity as grammar has too many parts. But it is commonplace to do typological work (eg WALS) to compare similarities between languages in particular aspects of grammar. Nov 21, 2017 at 20:28

1 Answer 1


Since you seem to be interested in syntax and word order parallels, this paper Wang and Eisner: The Galactic Dependencies Treebank may be of interest to you. They measure "dissimilarity" of two languages by training a syntax parser on language A and applying it to language B and look how many labels come out wrong; and for symmetrisation they also do it the other way round. With this kind of metric they can relate laguages according to their syntax.

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