(Asked by a layman. Also, if it is asked already, please kindly mentiion as such so that I delete the question.)

To my exceedingly limited understanding, there are three ways to determine the grammtical function of a word in a sentence. (1) The order of the word: In modern English, usually, the order of the words determines the function of the word. (For example, "The snake swallowed the man." versus, "The man swallowed the snake.") (2) Prefix and/or suffixes. In Turkish, for example, "Adam yılanı yuttu." versus, "Yılan adamı yuttu." In the first sentence, the object is the word "yılan" and in the second sentence the object is the word "adam". We know this by the "i" suffix at end of the word. For these examples, changing the order of the words makes no difference, except change of the emphasis. (3) In Arabic, the grammar usually revolves around identifying the diacratic mark on the last of the word, which determines the function of the word in the given sentence. In Arabic also, usually, changing the order only changes the emphasis.

My question: are there languages where the grammatical function of the word is determined by some other mean? And, are there languages where the grammatical function of the word is determined by some combination the mentioned rules above?

  • 6
    There are of course other things that can mark a word’s grammatical function (a very broad term) than just prefixes and suffixes: infixes, tones, mutations, particles, palatalisation, phonation, etc. Those are all the same type as your second option, though: overt marking through morphology, as opposed to syntactic marking through word order. Those are the two main groups. The third option doesn’t make sense from a linguistic point of view, though. There’s no such thing as a diacritic in speech, which is how language is primarily used. Mar 7, 2023 at 19:43

2 Answers 2


I think the better verb for what you're asking is "signal" rather than "determine" – the formal marking of grammatical function is caused by a word having a particular grammatical function, not the other way around. Second, you seem to be specifically interested in case-like functions a.k.a. grammatical relations – there are many kinds of grammatical functions.

The first thing you should also allow for is that in some instance, a particular grammatical relation is not marked at all. Or, you might say that the marker is "null". This is the situation with your Turkish examples and in Finnish as well, that subjects do not have a case marker. Turkish and Finnish do have case markers, which are in fact suffixes, which is to say, things added after the stem within the word, to mark grammatical relation. Such markers can be added after the stem (suffixed), before the stem (prefixed), also inserted into the stem (infixed). This is not a special property of grammatical relations, it is a a general property of morphology, that whatever a particular morpheme indicates can be put in a number of different places. Ultimately, what you want to know is, what are the possible ways of adding things to words to make variant forms of words. There are very many.

You can also signal grammatical relations by adding other words, before or after the thing being "marked". Rather than adding suffixes to a noun, Japanese does this with short words after the phrase being marked. Where Finnish has an ablative case suffix, English marks the same grammatical relation with prepositions.

As you noted, word order is very often a marker of grammatical relation, to the point that we talk of languages being VSO, SVO or SOV which tells you how subject and object relations can be computed from word order. It is normal that nominal phrases come in a particular order in a sentence, even in languages that have overt markers like suffixes or postpositions, though there are some languages where word order has little relationship to signalling grammatical relation ("free word-order languages"), which thus rely crucially on affixes to signal grammatical relation.

Control of agreement is another means of signalling grammatical relation. Subjects may govern subject-agreement on verbs, or objects may also govern object-agreement. Khoekhoe (Nama) has the interesting property that the subject governs (double) gender agreement on other nominals when SOV order is not observed, so you can identify the subject as the thing which everything else agrees with and which doesn't have two gender markers.


There is in fact a third possibility, but I will review the possibilities listed in the question first:

(1) is determination of the function by means of syntax and this is the major way in so-called isolating languages like English, Chinese, or Vietnamese

(2) and (3) is determination of function by means of morphology and this is the major way in so-called agglutinating languages like Finnish, Turkish, or Mongolian and in so-called inflecting languages like Latin, Sanskrit, or Arabic. The difference between agglutinating and inflecting languages is the degree of transparency of the morphology: In agglutinating languages is appears completely regular and predictable and tends to exhibit vowel harmony, in inflecting languages we have several different paradigms for inflection, and some inflections may denote more than one function.

The third possibility alluded at the beginning of my answer is to encode functional differences in the lexicon such that one stem can have only one function and there are few derived words. Although this mean is employed to some degree by any natural language I am not aware of languages that rely completely on lexicalisation of functional differences.

  • Thank you. These terms confuse me. Isn't morphology a subgroup of syntax? Or, is it not the case that syntax covers everything related to grammar rules; or is it just word order? In fact, I am yet to understand the difference between grammar and syntax, and whether linguists agree on them.
    – blackened
    Mar 8, 2023 at 11:07
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    @blackened No, morphology is how individual words change their form according to various factors, most commonly inflection (drive ~ drives ~ drove ~ driven; car ~ cars; happy ~ happier ~ happiest) or derivation (drive ~ driver ~ driverless; happy ~ unhappy ~ happiness); essentially the formation of words from smaller units. Syntax is a level higher: how words combine and are placed into slots to form phrases and sentences. In syntax, words are the ‘smaller units’. Grammar consists of syntax and morphology (and phonology to some degree) taken together. Mar 8, 2023 at 12:00
  • There was a long discussion among linguists in the 1940s and 50s about the three models of grammar description: Item and Arrangement (structuralism, as we would now call it), Item and Process (generativism, ditto), and Word and Paradigm ("classical" philology).
    – jlawler
    Mar 12, 2023 at 17:35

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