So after looking at a a few glosses across languages it looks like words can be in any order. Is it just based off convention then for each language or what?

I ask because of what it means to understand a statement. If the words can be in any order, then theoretically any sequence of words could encode a desired statement. But in each language we have a preference for a specific sequence or set of sequences. Is this just a convention for each language, or is there some in-built brain structures that govern how we perceive the "morphemes" or what you call it?

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    based convention Is of on order purely the words?
    – Nardog
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 21:53
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    The name of the convention is "the rules of the grammar". If it weren't mere language-specific grammatical convention, word order would be the same in all languages.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 22:00
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    Some languages, such as English (Indo-European), use word order to indicate the functions of the words, so word order is important for meaning. Some languages, such as Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan), don't use word order for that and so the words can be in any order and still have the same meaning. Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 22:10
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    Caution: 'by convension' does not imply 'arbitrary'.
    – amI
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 5:30
  • Too short to be a proper answer, but a relevant argument is that when you need to encode particular grammatical information, in some languages it may be encoded in the (relative) order of words, and in other languages the exact same thing may be encoded in particular (extra) morphemes or words so that the order of words is "more free" to be used for other information e.g. emphasis. I.e. there's a "tradeoff spectrum"/anticorrelation between strictness of word order and morphological "richness" of a particular language.
    – Peteris
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 11:30

5 Answers 5


The order of words is based off convention, in the same way that the meanings of words are based off convention. In other words, there's no law of nature that says "cat" means 🐈, and there's no law of nature that says that verbs have to come before their direct objects. Instead, there's an enormous collection of "conventions" that English-speakers use to communicate, and we call those conventions "the English language".

In particular, the ordering of words (whatever you consider "words" to be for a given language) is called "syntax", and is a whole discipline of its own. It's why, in English, "is the order of words arbitrary" and "the order of words is arbitrary" have different meanings, and "order the is arbitrary words of" is nonsense. Some languages have extremely loose syntax, and you can rearrange words pretty much however you like without changing the meaning. Some languages have extremely strict syntax, and this sort of rearrangement is forbidden. English is (like most languages) somewhere in the middle, but generally on the stricter side.

(It is worth noting, though, that "convention" doesn't mean "easily changed" or "easily explained"! English syntax is the focus of a tremendous amount of research, and still has never been fully explained. And prescriptivists throughout history have tried to rewrite it without success. Instead, it's a "convention" in the sense that there's no universal truth behind it; it's created by a consensus of English-speakers in order to communicate, nothing more, nothing less.)

  • Arbitrary but not random. There are some natural laws - like Zipf's law, not an absolute, but indisputably observable. For example, a language could have postpositions or adpositions, but something like What are you talking about? is an exception , as is About he is talking x and so on. Similar with adjectives. Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 13:31
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    No, the syntactic or phonological rules of a language are not conventions in any meaningful sense. There is no rule that animals must have four legs or six, but having two legs, for example, is not a convention. Writing is a convention, because you can change it overnight. Yuu cannot change SVO, SOV or OVS overnight just because you want to. The other thing about conventions is that they are understood and can be mimicked ignored or changed. The rules of syntax are too complicated for us to vaguely understand yet. And to the extent that we do, this is something we can only do via study. Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 16:31
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    @Araucaria You can't change orthography overnight either—people are still resisting the German orthography reforms from a hundred years ago. Conventions don't have to be easily changed, but they are arbitrary; I walk on two legs because that's encoded in my genes, but I use SVO only because everyone around me used SVO when I was young. If I'd by an accident of fate grown up in Israel instead of America I would have learned Hebrew instead of English, but I'd still walk on two legs. That's what I mean by conventional.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 17:13
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    @Araucaria In what sense would you say the rules of language aren't a convention, then? They're arbitrary decisions that we continue to use because our parents and teachers used them, and can change in arbitrary ways over time for arbitrary reasons.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 17:21
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    @Araucaria I think we're just using different meanings of "convention". My use of "convention" is pretty close to "arbitrary" (as in "the arbitrariness of the sign"—that there's no underlying natural law enforcing it, it doesn't exist independently of the humans who use it). That doesn't necessarily mean it can be changed easily, or that it can be explained easily, just that it exists only in the way that humans use it. It may not be the best word for the concept, but I'm trying to stick to OP's terminology.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 18:01

Word order is not based purely on convention. A sentence expressing a complicated idea has a relatively more complicated constituent structure, and constituent structure places limits on word order. Words in the same constituent tend to be ordered near each other. The details differ greatly from language to language, but searching on "scrambling" will get you many discussions on the web. Here is one from here: Scrambling in languages like Latin. Scrambling was proposed by Robin Lakoff to describe Latin word order.

  • Interesting! I never realized that Lakoff was the one who came up with scrambling.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 18:02
  • @Draconis I'm not sure my attribution of Scrambling to R. Lakoff is correct. Perhaps it was Ross.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 20:57

Any language is a system of conventions. Word order is certainly part of that, but it depends on the specific language how rigid rules are. In many Indo-European languages it seems that the preferred order of subject, object and verb is "SVO" (see jknappen's answer). In Latin it is not really rigid. Also German is an example with more flexibility. Although the standard is definitely SVO, all six arrangements of S, O, V can occur, but some would probaby be used only in poetic language. The order can also put special emphasis on the object (OVS) or produce a question (VSO).

  • No, accepting a description of a language is convention. A large part of language learning is conventional, but "language" is not just a system of conventions. If that were the case, how would a child initially learn, be taught, and learn to be taught language. If you talk about language like English, where a huge bias exists to incentivize a strict denomination and regulation of language for laws sake if nothing else, then we can jump right ahead to a discussion of loi naturelle. But not here. The question is shit, and "is shit" means whatever I want it to mean. This no-brainer.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 15:59

In Finnish, the word order is almost entirely irrelevant. Even the most mangled up sentence (vs. convention) can be understood, as long as the word declension is correct.

Take for example the English sentence:

The dog is in the hot black car with the window open

If you were to change it to say:

The window with black open dog in hot is the car the

It would make no sense whatsoever.

Enter Finnish.

Koira on kuumassa mustassa autossa, jossa on ikkuna auki

Which is the same English phrase in conventional Finnish. Now, if you were to mangle it up and change the order to uhh... unconventional:

ikkuna jossa on koira kuumassa on autossa mustassa auki

You can still get the meaning, even though all the word order rules were thrown out the window (eh). The exact translation of the above would be something like:

The window where the dog is in the heat, is open in the car black

Which still sort of makes sense. I'm not saying you should just ignore all rules, but some languages do allow for massive deviations from the convention and grammar, and still be understood. The key in Finnish is in the declension. But even ignoring that will still be understood, but it will take a moment to parse :)

auki koira auto on joka kuuma ikkuna musta

Gets far more challenging, with all declensions removed, but can still kind of be understood without context. Anyway, the only reason it is harder to understand is because there is a conventional word order that most people follow subconsciously, learned from other natives.

In daily life, it happens all the time that you start a phrase, change your thoughts mid-phrase and modify the rest without missing a beat. The phrase will come out a bit odd, but will still be fully understood.

  • That's interesting, but the word-morpheme distinction is not solid. In that sense, the very strong collocation of morphemes (or clitics, suffixes) in your example would contradict your statement. You can try to discuss a dividing line to be derived from these examples if you feel so inclined, but I am not sure that's useful or even possible. Either way, you would have to touch upon OP's inquiry in more detail, which is however futile as long as the question is ill-defined and stabbing in the dark without much precision (though it does mention "morphemes").
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 15:38

A quick look on the distribution of basic word order tells us that it is not entirely conventional. Out of the six possibilities SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) SVO, VSO, VOS, OSV, OVS the latter three are suspicously underrepresented in the languages of the world (it was once believed that these word orders didn't exist at all).

So there is some element in word order that makes it not completely conventional, but conventional enough to allow for different word orders in different languages, and even the more deprecated ones occur.

  • yeah, this is the answer that should be accepted
    – jaam
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 21:12

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