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Why does the attributive adjective come before a noun in English? In most languages, the adjective comes always after a noun. For example, white car is written as the equivalent of car white in Latin languages. What is the origin of this?

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    Only one-word adjectives come before nouns in English. Adjectives of more than one word come after the noun. Consider an eleven-year-old boy (hyphens indicate a compound word) versus a boy eleven years old. They mean the same thing, but they have to appear in that order. – jlawler Oct 7 at 15:56
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    Most? [Citation needed]! – Zeus Oct 8 at 0:22
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    It's not true that in Latin languages the order is always [noun] [adjective]. In Italian, I say automobile bianca (white car), where bianca means white, but I say also bella automobile (beautiful car) where bella means beautiful. – kiamlaluno Oct 8 at 7:35
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    Most of the syntax in English still follows the Germanic origins; German puts the adjective in front of the noun as well (das weiße Auto). – Guntram Blohm supports Monica Oct 8 at 7:48
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    In Portuguese (a Latin language), adjective order can change the meaning of the phrase: e.g. "um pobre homem" and "um homem pobre" both translate into English as "a poor man", but one means "an unfortunate man", and the other means "a man without money" – Chronocidal Oct 8 at 8:36
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The short answer to why we say "a tall tree" and not "a tree tall" is that we learned this pattern from listening to other people speaking; and those people got their rules from their elders, and so on. In other words, this is and has been a historical fact of the language for many years. Ringe & Taylor (2014) The development of Old English has a reasonably extensive discussion of the history of English word order, and A-N order seems to be a fact of Old English as well. Ringe (2006) in the predecessor volume From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic is a bit brief on Proto-Germanic syntax, saying "PGmc syntax reflected the PIE situation with little change, aside from the development of prepositions".

OE order of noun and adjective is not as rigid as it is in Modern English, see Ringe & Taylor §8.7 esp. §8.7.3. For example the order "angel holy", "garment rough", "thane the foremost", "sorrow the great" exist in OE. There are proposed correlations between pre-nominal vs. post-nominal order and formal or functional properties: attributive, given information, non-restrictive reading, inherent or intrinsic characteristics and weak adjective form – vs. predicative, new information, restrictive reading and temporary characteristics.

The question of why there are pre-nominal adjectives in Germanic at all is not trivial. There is similar variability in word order in other branches of IE, so that Ancient Greek A N ἀγαθοὶ ἄνδρες vs N A ἄνδρες ἀγαθοί seems to relate to focus / emphasis. Latin has similar variability. One can speculate about possible explanations for the stronger tendency for adjectives to be pre-nominal and not post-nominal in Modern English, for example, loss of inflectional affixes may have forced adoption of more rigid word order patterns.

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It's perhaps not entirely accurate to say 'most languages'. In several Indo-European languages, the adjective comes before the noun too. E.g. in Russian - 'белая машина' is 'white car', but the other way around 'машина белая' actually means 'the car is white'.

In Hindi, 'सफेद गाडी' ('safed gaadi') has the adjective 'safed' before the noun too.

Even in Latin languages, e.g. Italian, the position of the adjective is not always after the noun (e.g. 'beautiful red ball' becomes 'bella palla rossa' - note the adjective 'bella' preceding the noun 'palla' and 'rossa' succeeding it).

There's some analysis in this paper that you may find useful: Artemis Alexiadous, "Adjective Syntax and (the absence of) noun raising in the DP")

Another paper that discusses the conditions under which a normally post-nominal adjective (e.g. in French) sometimes appears pre-nominally is Robert Truswell, "Non-restrictive Adjective Interpretation and Association with Focus".

  • Welcome to Linguistics.SE! Although this post contains valid observations, it does not actually answer the question, Why in English the attributive adjective comes before a noun?. If the direct answer is contained within the paper you referenced, please take care to write up some key points straight to your answer. – bytebuster Oct 7 at 12:31
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    You are, of course, correct. My impression of the question was that English was somehow posed as an oddity requiring specific reasons for developing that way, whereas if other languages also feature pre-nominal attributive adjectives, then perhaps it's not a historical reason for the divergence but a more structural one, if that makes sense. – user2474226 Oct 7 at 13:05
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    @bytebuster. In linguistics "why" is usually a bad question. – fdb Oct 7 at 13:07
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    @fdb, sure. IMO, bad questions should be closed instead of receiving — also bad — answers. – bytebuster Oct 7 at 15:34
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    I happen to think that the question is bad but the answer is good, especially for a new contributor, who shouldn't really be bashed for doing their best (that's what the waving hand is for!). Upvote and keep from me. (Of course, the other answers are good too, but considering who they're coming from, that surprises nobody.) – LjL Oct 7 at 21:25
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"Why" is always a difficult question to answer in linguistics. Sometimes, the best we can say is "it's just the way things are": in some languages (English, Russian, Ancient Greek, Hittite, Japanese), attributive adjectives typically precede the noun, while in others (Latin, most of Romance, Swahili, Arabic, Persian), they tend to follow. There's no objective reason why one is better than the other; it's just one of the rules of the syntax. English actually uses a mix: attributive adjectives generally have to come after indefinite pronouns (I saw something red, *I saw red something).

However, this choice sometimes does connect to other features of the syntax. Some syntacticians categorize languages as a whole as right-branching vs left-branching, also known as head-initial vs head-final. English is generally considered head-initial aka right-branching; since the attributive adjective is the head of its phrase, according to these theories, it makes sense that it comes first. But this isn't an absolute: German is head-initial sometimes and head-final other times, for example, while Japanese is pretty much always head-final but has nouns as the heads of noun-plus-attributive-adjective phrases. And, as you've seen above, English inverts the order in certain regular circumstances. So this is more like a vague categorical guideline than a clean boolean property.

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    I don't understand the second paragraph. The question is asking about why adjectives come before nouns in a noun phrases; the noun is the head of the noun phrase (setting aside the topic of noun phrase vs. determiner phrase analyses), so the head-initial word order is noun-adjective, not adjective-noun. – ewawe Oct 7 at 18:20
  • @sumelic I've seen analyses of English where "the red car" is a DP containing an AP containing an NP, though I'm not sure how standard that is (I'm very much not a syntactician). In that analysis, "red car" is an AP headed by "red". – Draconis Oct 7 at 18:24
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    I'm not a syntactician either, but "red car" being analyzed as an adjective phrase headed by red looks completely alien to me. Are you sure you're remembering the structure correctly? For example, the following analysis, which does use determiner phrases, says that adjectives "are recursive modifiers of nouns" or "N' adjuncts": primus.arts.u-szeged.hu/bese/Chapter4/4.1.htm – ewawe Oct 7 at 18:31
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    @sumelic That very well might be the case. I'll see if I can ask an actual syntactician. – Draconis Oct 7 at 18:32

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