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(I'm a language enthusiast, not a linguist, so the question is probably longer and contains more examples than it needs; maybe it could have been shorter if I had more techinical terminology at my disposal. But this is the point of the question, I'm searching for terminology and classification of a given feature I notice in comparing a few languages.)


tl;dr

Nonetheless, I'll try to be short:

My observation is that,

  • in Russian, it is relatively doable to do some word reordering in a sentence

    • without breaking it at a grammatical level
    • and keeping the original meaning
  • in English, it is relatively doable to do some word reordering in a sentence

    • withoiut breaking it at a grammatical level
    • even though the original meaning is often totally lost, in favour of a new one
  • in Italian, reordering seems to be almost entirely obstructed by the grammar: even changing a word for a synonym makes it impossible for simple sentences to stay grammatically meaningful upon word reordering:

    • Il polizzioto sparò al criminale can easily be reordered to Il criminale sparò al poliziotto, still grammatically meaningful, with a different meaning
    • but La guardia sparò al criminale can't become Il criminale sparò alla guardia by simple word reordering, because that requires "dismembering" al into a + il, reordering, and finally fusing a+ la into alla.

Does this property of a language have a name?


Long version

In English you can easilty reorder the words of a sentence and still obtain a meaningful sentence, thought often with a different meaning:

The cop shot the thief

The thief shot the cop

Whereas in languages like russian, the order is almost irrelevant, i.e. you can reorder the words of a sentence and still obtain a meaningful sentence, with the same meaning:

эту девушку увидел Антон

Антон увидел эту девушку

But in either case you can (often) reorder the words and still get a meaningful sentence. In a way, even if in Eglish the meaning of a sentence is (often) built into the order of the words and in russian it is not (often? Or at all?) built into the order of the words, in both these languages the order of the words is (often) not built into the words themselves.

Now, I'm not a russian speaker (just started to learn it a bit), but I speak English everyday and, so I can speak about it. In my claim above I've included (often) because I know the statement is not entirely true in English:

  • I can't chage John stabs you with a pen to you stab John with a pen by just word reordering, but as soon as the verbs in a sentence are all future tenses (any) and past tenses (except past continuous) things will work in this respect, as you can move them freely from subject to subject; plus verbs just don't vary with the gender of the subject;
  • I can't change I love you to you love me without changing I to me, but this means that as soon as I limit myself to sentences using names rather than pronouns, I'm good to go;
  • and not much more comes to my mind right now,

but my point is that it is very easy to be able to change the order of the words, and still get to a meaningful, possibly silly sentence: but the order is to be able to change the point of my words that is very silly, and still get it to a meaningful, possibly easy sentence.

To rephrase the above a bit, my observation is that

  • in Russian, you have a certain degree of freedom in moving some words around without altering the meaning of the sentence, fundamentally because words bring with them the role they play in the sentence; clearly there are cases where the ambiguities can arise (as shown in a comment);
  • in English, you have a certain degree of freedom in moving some words around without compromising the grammatical meaningfulness of the sentence and often altering the meaning of the sentence, fundamentally because words don't bring with them the role they have in the sentence, neither they are in number-or-gender agreement with surrounding words; clearly there are exceptions (I is subject, but changes to me when it is not; at present tense verbs do express whether they are 3rd person or not, and some verbs like to be change also across the other persons a bit).

But consider now Italian, my mother tongue. The order is almost cemented in every single part of the sentence:

  • verbs have full-fledged conjugations, by which I mean that they change almost always across the 6 persons (yeah, che io voglia e che tu voglia, but it's not at all comparable to I/you/he/she/we/they wanted); so the only way to be able to move them around is that all possible subjects have the same person; and in some cases even the gender percolates into the verb: Giovanni (male) è andato vs Sara (female) è andata
  • articles generally take on gender and number of what they refer to, they are different depending on the leading part of it, and they often fuse with simple prepositions into a single token: we can't change l'inchiostro della penna è nel tubo to il tuo dell'inchiostro è nella penna.
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  • The very first example you give for English works for Italian too, surely? My Italian is fairly basic, but il poliziotto ha sparato (sparò) al ladro and il ladro ha sparato (sparò) al poliziotto both seem correct to me, and mean the exact same thing as their respective English counterparts. It’s true in general that rich morphology tends to correlate with freer word order, while limited morphology correlates with more rigid word order – but both are just tendencies, not absolutes. I don’t actually know if there is a specific name for this phenomenon. Jan 29, 2023 at 14:07
  • Well, Russian and Italian have more morphology at their disposal that is used to express agreement or object marking. By the way, how does your proposal explain this Russian sentence, Эти девушки увидели Антона? Or эти девушки говорили о Антоне.
    – Alex B.
    Jan 29, 2023 at 14:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, that's true, but in italian that's almost all there is: you can swap subject and object when they share the same grammatical person (the cop and the thief are both he) as soon. If I use l'ufficiale (the official) which is lo + ufficiale_m things break alrady. Let alone when something other than subject and object enter the picture, as in italian _di/a/da/in/con/su/per/tra/fra (of/to/from/in/with/on/for/between) fuse with articles (e.g. di + il = del).
    – Enlico
    Jan 29, 2023 at 14:22
  • @AlexB., as I said I don't speak russian other than a few words. That's why I've included a lot of (often) in my question and how much rather than whether in its title.
    – Enlico
    Jan 29, 2023 at 14:24
  • @Enlico But even with those, all you need to do is keep NPs together when you swap them and it still works (though it will probably often lead to sentences which are either clumsier or more formal or poetic, like ‘al ladro ha sparato il poliziotto’). The same is, to some degree, true in English. You can switch the nouns ‘the answer is more important than the question’, but you’ll also be switching the articles (/ðə/ becomes /ði/ and vice versa). Jan 29, 2023 at 14:33

1 Answer 1

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It seems to me that you're basically describing the differences between inflected v. isolating (or analytic) types of languages.

With inflected languages, the ending is extremely important, and the grammatical information is primarily embedded there. With analytic languages, they have no grammatical endings, and so word order is the primary determiner of a words grammatical function.

I should note that these are broad descriptions, and as far as I know, no language has completely free word order. The difference between Latin's puer puellam amat ("the boy loves the girl") and amat puellam puer is in their emphasis (and very often the constraints of a poem's meter), but you couldn't rearrange scio quid vir faciat ("I know what the man is doing") into faciat scio vir quid without torturing listeners.

English used to be an inflectional language, but it's in the process of losing inflections and becoming a true analytic language.

See this question for more information on the differences.

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  • Thanks, both for the answer and for the link to the other answer. So my understanding is that the reordering is almost impossible in italian for the reason that italian does not occupy a very polarized position between inflected vs. isolated, in the sense that it's not as much inflected as, say Russian, so it needs more grammatical-words, but at the same time it is not as analytic as English, so it ends up inflecting grammatical words as well as content words. This characteristic is what basically locks down the words of a sentence, expect for very simple ones.
    – Enlico
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:31
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    @Enlico The Romance languages did indeed undergo a loss of inflection compared to Latin, thus necessitating a stricter word order. In particular Romance nouns lost their case endings. I'll update the Latin example to make that clearer.
    – cmw
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:37

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