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"A cat is an animal".

"Is a cat an animal?"

I have a theory that the word order here is important. One must first put the image of a "cat" in your brain BEFORE recognising if it is an "animal".

For example, "Is an example of an animal, a cat?" is much more unnatural. Or perhaps "Are there animals called cats?" But these are not the usual way of asking this question.

Are there any languages in which these common phrases are reversed? Which would disprove my theory?

  • Can U clarify Ur question? Do U ask about the placement of "is", or are you interested in the relative position of "a cat" and "an animal"? – jk - Reinstate Monica Jul 8 '19 at 15:51
  • @jknappen "cat" followed by "animal". The "is" is not really important in this situation merely as a signifier. Another similar phrase is "The sky is blue". or "Is the sky blue?" In this case, "sky" is followed by the more general word of "blue". – zooby Jul 8 '19 at 16:44
  • But when an English speaker says "I ate a scrumptious, hot, chewy slice of pizza that was the best I've had in a while," we can recognize the act of eating way before we put the mental image of a pizza. – jick Jul 8 '19 at 19:15
  • @Jick I'm particular interesting in "is" because it is classifying things by imagining them first. As in show me a picture of a "cat" then I tell you "that is an animal". The temporal order seems to matter here. Or "this [point] is an animal". Point first, then say afterwards. It's show and tell. Not tell and show! – zooby Jul 9 '19 at 1:43
  • Only language I can think of is Yoda from Star Wars. He might say "Animal, cat is". But that is a made up language. – zooby Jul 9 '19 at 1:47
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Word order in a copular construction can be flexible according to the languages of the world.

You can have for a canonical sentence:

  • Subject + Copula + Predicate (e.g English)

  • Copula + Subject + Predicate (e.g Welsh)

  • Predicate + Subject + Copula (e.g Basques)

  • Copula + Predicate + Subject (e.g Irish)

In addition, this order can vary according to the tense, the modality and so on. So your theory cannot be endorsed.

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  • Yes, "a cat is an animal" in Irish seems to be "is ainmhí é cat". Well that proves me wrong. – zooby Jul 9 '19 at 1:53
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    @zooby It is indeed, and the question form is “An ainmhí é (an) cat?”. You’d normally use the definite article in Irish here; it sounds odd without it. Note that ‘the cat is the animal’ (an identifying clause rather than a classifying one) has a different word order: “Is é an cat an t-ainmhí”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '19 at 23:47
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Yes. In the most common order for equative or defining sentences in Welsh, the complement comes first, then the verb, then the subject.

Example (from Wikipedia's article on Welsh syntax):

Diffoddwr tân ydy Gwyn.

'Gwyn is a fireman.'

To see this in use, look at the first sentence of most articles in the Welsh Wikipedia. The usual syntax is "[definition, sometimes quite long] yw [subject of article]". "Yw" is one of the words for "is".

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  • Google translate tells me "a cat is an animal" is "mae cath yn anifail". Who am I to believe? Also "Gwyn is a man" is "Mae Gwyn yn ddyn." Not sure why it's different with firemen! – zooby Jul 9 '19 at 1:37
  • Maybe because it's literally "Fighter of Fire is Gwyn." I can think of some poetric phrases such as "Happy, is he." and "Blue, is the sky." "Shining, are the stars above". But wouldn't say that is typical. And "Animal, is a cat" is just not the right phrase to classify something. – zooby Jul 9 '19 at 1:50
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    @zooby - Those Welsh sentences starting with "mae" are in the modern simplified Welsh as opposed to the standard literary Welsh Colin Fine quotes in his answer. – Yellow Sky Jul 9 '19 at 3:46
  • And indeed the article on "cat" ("cath") in the Welsh Wikipedia does begin: "Mae'r gath (felis catus) yn rhywogaeth famalaidd". But the article on "horse" ("Ceffyl") begins "Mamal dof mawr yw ceffyl". Both orders are used. But to say that "Diffoddwr tân ydy Gwyn" translates as "Fighter of Fire is Gwyn" is to misunderstand what translation is. The question was specifically about languages with a different order for copulative sentences. – Colin Fine Jul 9 '19 at 9:07
  • The word order can also change for emphasis. Mae'r car yn goch: The car is red. Goch yw'r car: Red is the car. At least, that's what I learned. I'm not a mother-tongue speaker. – Owain Jul 13 '19 at 9:51

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