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In handling the concept of dialects of a common language among characters in "classical" role-playing games (e.g., D&D, Traveller), one idea for signalling 'foreign' dialects that often seems to arise is using different word/phrase ordering within English. (for example, "The manual, you must read." (OSV) instead of "You must read the manual." (SVO))

A little experimentation shows that most orderings of Subject, Verb, and Object in English sentences can be used while still conveying the intended meaning.

My question: Why is English flexible enough that understanding isn't significantly impaired when using non-standard word/phrase order?

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    What languages are you comparing English to? Or, alternatively, how are you measuring syntactic flexibility? I think that compared to languages like Latin or Polish, English word order is rigid. Jul 21 at 15:28
  • @GregoryNisbet - As I understand it, both Latin and Polish mark case, and because of that are far more flexible than English. With no case markers in English, I would expect that the normal English SVO order would be more-or-less required - but in practice, the only word order I couldn't make "work" (that is, convey the intended meaning from the "matching" SVO sentence) in English seemed to be OVS. Jul 21 at 15:46
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    First, it's subjective, it's only you who feel it that way. Second, if you couldn't make "work" OVS word order, why is the only example in your question is in this OVS word order? And why is it just one? Why not give more examples, like “Loves Jack Mary.” — who loves whom?
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 21 at 16:56
  • @YellowSky - The example given is OSV, not OVS. Your proposed example would be VSO or VOS, and there can be ambiguity in any of the non-standard word orders. Jul 21 at 17:54
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    My guess is that you experimented with very simple sentences, where there was only one obvious way to make the words fit together sensibly. Try a more complicated sentence, e.g., English understanding non-standard word/phrase order using when significantly impaired isn't that enough flexible is why?
    – jick
    Jul 22 at 0:18
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In order to answer your questions, we have to address the other mechanism that is utilized. In the sentence The manual, you must read, you're not only moving the object phrase but also stressing it. Try uttering the manual you must read without stressing the phrase the manual. It would be a variation of the manual (that) you must read instead of you must read the manual. But when one moves a phrase to the initial position and stresses it we actually change the meaning of the sentence slightly. We can think of it as a variation of (It is) the manual that you must read. This movement and stress factor causes the syntactic mechanism called topicalization. This mechanism is in most languages, but in English, it is more marked than, for instance, Turkish which has a way more flexible word order and it is possible to move a phrase in the initial position without topicalizing it.

Short answer: topicalization.

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  • Topicalisation does not necessarily entail a different stress pattern, though it can. But even with no real topicalisation, there are examples of unexpected word order which are nonetheless completely straightforward to understand. Yodish is predominantly OSV and OVS (at least in main clauses), for example, and JFK’s “though arms we need… though embattled we are” are both OSV. Jul 22 at 0:47
  • You're right, topicalization and stress are not directly related. Though, in the specific example I've talked about I think it is required to put stress on the topicalized phrase. To be honest, I couldn't think of an English sentence that topicalizes O without using stress.
    – Yanek Yuk
    Jul 22 at 1:30
  • This is a good explanation; I'm including a link to Wikipedia on Topicalization for completeness. Jul 22 at 10:39
  • @YanekYuk I’d argue this construction is focalisation rather than topicalisation — focalisation emphasises the focus, topicalisation emphasises the comment you are making about the topic. ’The manual, you must read’ focusses on the manual; topicalisation covers constructions like ‘as for the manual, you must read it’.
    – bradrn
    Jul 23 at 1:06

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