I'm interested in what is known about the structure of languages and
how much they might differ. In Indo-European languages (and Hebrew as
well), the basic sentence structure is (not necessarily in this order
and with variations) Subject, Verb, Object.
Underlying this is the deeper question whether that sentence structure
is a basic, fundamental, human thought pattern that, perhaps, precedes
There are linguists who strive to prove that languages are based on a universal grammar and that this grammar includes certain linguistic universals. Many linguists increasingly believe that hypothesis is incorrect or at least not a good approach to understanding language.
At a certain level, all humans share certain fundamental biology and a drive to survive, reproduce, and find happiness. Also, at a certain levels, all languages have expressions and ways to refer to things, convey information, ask questions, and make demands. All languages have ways of distinguishing who is doing what to whom or to express aspect. The difficulties start when we try to move beyond these abstract levels and analyze details of structure that accomplish these goals.
At the abstract semantic level, you could say that all languages have "subjects" and objects, but if you try to use this term to describe the actual structure of many languages, you run into difficulties.
In ergative-absolutive languages, like Tibetan, Hindi (an Indo-European language), Sumerian, and Basque, there are expressions of the following type:
The city defended (There was a defense of the city)
The army approached (There was an approach of the army)
The army attacked the city (There was an attack of the city by the army)
In these languages, the word "city" patterns the same way in sentences 1 and 3, regardless of whether it is the subject or object of what is shown in the parentheses. This is called an "absolutive" construction. The word "army," however, patterns differently in sentences 2 and 3 depending on whether it is an intransitive verb, as in sentence 2 (an "absolutive construction"), or is the subject of a transitive verb, as in sentence 3 (an "ergative construction"), even though it is the "subject" in both sentences from an English point of view. I have tried to show the logic of this patterning by using "of" or "by" in the versions of the sentences in the parentheses.
Given that the patterning has nothing parallel to the English concepts of "subject" and "object," we use the terms "ergative" and "absolutive" to differentiate these functions in these languages to avoid confusion.
In many languages, "objects" are often incorporated into verbs in a special form so that the expressions are more like "he rock-threw," rather than "he threw rocks" so that it is awkward to talk about objects other than in a general semantic sense, any more than you would talk about the prefixes in "proceed," "exceed," "precede," and "accede" as really just adverbs incorporated into the verb "ceed"/"cede." In such languages, overt "subjects" and "objects," when they exist, often merely coindex things already within the verb and are not treated as arguments of the verb. An example is Mohawk.
In Mandarin, it is more efficient to talk about topics and verb complements than "subjects" and "objects," since verbs have no agreement rules, nouns and verbs do not inflect, and word order has many variations that are arguably more determined by pragmatic and semantic criteria rather than by syntax. Furthermore, in Mandarin and Japanese, sentences like "elephants have long noses" generally could mark both "elephants" and "noses" equally as "subjects," which is something inconsistent with the usual conception of subjects, which requires only one per clause.
It turns out that languages include very few universals at the structural level, even if we can subject them to some forms of universal analysis. Let's look at a few cases of things you might expect to be structured in the same way.
Number of objects: Some languages have no grammatical structure to indicate it, like Japanese. Some differentiate singular and plural, but apply different rules to animate and inanimate things. Some add a mandatory dual for anything numbering exactly two. English has one way to say "trees." Arabic has at least four, depending on the number and what you mean. Some languages force you to indicate the number of objects on nouns; some, on verbs. Number is a universal physical reality, and yet languages use different structures or no structures to convey it.
Pronouns: When Japanese do not want to repeat a noun, the usual practice is simply to omit it. There are a myriad ways to refer to participants in a conversation and to third parties with a convenient short reference, but no real systematic way that amounts to a system of pronouns. Many times its system of honorific and in- and out-group distinctions clarifies who is doing what to whom in a way completely different from what we are used to in English.
Relative directions: A few languages have no expression for "behind," "left" or "in front of"; instead they use cardinal directions to locate objects in space relative to each other. In these languages, you say "step to the north," rather than "step to the left," in the appropriate situation.
Tense: Mandarin verbs have no person, tense, or mood; and yet Mandarin speakers have no difficulty at all expressing the semantics of these things by other means. Time of event relative to time of speech is a physical reality, but this reality is not built into a single grammatical structure of Mandarin, but is accomplished through a variety of different means.
"Yes" and "no": All languages have ways to respond to "yes-or-no questions," but most languages have no exact equivalents of "yes" and "no," and others have no such words at all. French and German use three words. Japanese has two words that equate better with "right" and "wrong" than "yes" and "no." Mandarin, Irish, and Latin really have no such universal words that can invariantly be used by themselves to affirm or deny propositions. In these languages, you typically use a short version of the question to affirm or deny something.
I'd be especially interested to know if languages of the descendants of the first arrivals in the Americas, around 15 thousand or so years ago) are not like this, say Navajo or Hopi or ....
The indigenous languages of the Americas belong to many different language groups and do not really have any unifying language features, nor do they generally have features that clearly mark them off as a group from other languages in the world.
It is true, however, that there are many languages in the Americas that have structures extremely different from English. For examples, read up on verbs in Navajo or on obviation in nouns and verb inflection in Munsee or on (evidentiality) in Quechua. However, I could also point out "unusual things" in German (word order) Ancient Greek (verb conjugations), Mandarin (aspects), Arabic (derivation from roots), Swahili (noun classes), American Sign Language (double question words), and Coptic (second tenses). These languages have structures that are extremely different from English and extremely different from each other with implications throughout their grammar.
A simple way to make sense of all this is a hierarchy that separates what humans linguistically have in common and what they don't. If you imagine seeing a man who is hungry. You are witnessing a state that is understandable in all human societies. At this level 1, languages do not differ.
If you are motivated to communicate what you see, you are conceiving a generic communication at level 2 that is again common to all languages. All languages have some way of doing this.
At level 3, different languages have a different range of tools to express this communication. These tools allow you to express certain things but also force you to express certain things because of how they work. At this level, all languages differ, but some have various tools in their tool boxes that are similar to some others.
At level 4, the speaker composes a specific sentence. At this level, each language has diversity, since different sentences can be used for the same communicative purpose. In English, I might say: "he is getting hungry," "he's hungry," "he's gotten hungry," or "that guy looks like he is starving." This menu of options is unique to English, but other languages may have some of these tools or something similar. Other languages may have a completely different set, and there is little you can say about any universal structure in how different languages would express this general thought.