From here :

English and Chinese, for example, put the subject first, the verb in the middle, and the object at the end for an SVO word order. Irish and Biblical Hebrew are VSO languages that put the verb first. Latin and Japanese are SOV languages that put the verb at the end.

I notice that in all of these it is the position of the verb (1,2 or 3 in the triplet) that changes. The object never precedes the subject.

Q : Is this always true in all human languages? And untold bonus glory for speculation on - why might this be so?

  • 3
    No. First, there are languages without subjects (these are called ergative languages). Second, in many languages either there is usually no noun subject (because the verb is inflected for subject) or there is no special order for the subject to appear (because word order is not used to mark grammatical relations). In the remaining languages, which do have separate noun subjects and do normally put them in one place, there is a strong tendency to put subject before object. The most common word orders in the world are SOV (~50%), SVO (~35%), and VSO (~10%). The other three are rare, but exist. – jlawler Jul 7 '14 at 21:48
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    jlawler, you should post that as an answer on its own. – Darkgamma Jul 7 '14 at 21:49
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    @jlawler The previous comment forgot to precede your name with "@", so I am explicitly supporting hereby, to make sure you get it. – babou Jul 7 '14 at 22:04
  • Object–subject–verb word order can be found even in English: "Rome I shall see!", "I hate oranges, but apples I'll eat!" Russian has free word order, so it uses that often, too: "Меня он не любит, а её он любит!" ('Me he doesn't love, but her he does love!') See here about other languages that also use it. – Yellow Sky Jul 7 '14 at 22:04
  • The question I ask: It looks like this discussion is not supposed to cover language structures such as relative clauses. Is there a reason to assume it implicitly? – babou Jul 7 '14 at 22:12

All the comments on the question provided a summary answer: NO. This can can be summarized in two points:

  1. There are languages where Object-Subject word order is possible (albeit rare).
  2. Even in the languages nominally Subject-Object dominant, it is possible and indeed common to reverse the order to Object-Subject.

However, there are two aspects of this question worth answering.

  1. Is it worth even tracking the SOV order in languages and then asking this question.
  2. Why is the subject more likely to precede object across all human languages.

Re 1. The whole SOV/VSO/... thing is mostly an artefact of a linguistic theory that is concerned with the surface order of words in a sentence. It is clearly a remnant of the analytic nature of the languages spoken or focused on by the theoreticians. Not all traditions are at all concerned with word order nearly as much and will ask questions with a different bias. It may be worth keeping an eye on how the ordering of words is used to express certain meanings, but the order itself is really incidental. Of course, the whole subject/object deal is itself incidental to concerns of agent/patient relationship (experts on ergativity would do well to weigh in, here).

Re 2. Given the revised emphasis and refocusing of our concern about word order from 1, we can ask why (with all the caveats in mind) do people tend to express the agent/patient relationship in a linear order going from agent to patient. The answer probably lies in what I would like to call (inspired by George Lakoff) 'motivated iconicity'. If time and action are conceptualized in space, then when that space is conceived as directional away from the actor, language may replicate that direction with word order. There are no universals here, just tendencies that may aggregate to very strong trends. There's some research on iconicity but not nearly enough to make this more than a supposition. But perhaps one worth further investigation.

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    i like the part about motivated iconicity. seems a reasonable way to approach understanding such order, having also considered the caveats you raise to its importance. – Cris Jul 8 '14 at 11:57
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    SOV languages may be a special case. They're in the majority and they resemble one another in all kinds of ways -- it's possible to translate Japanese and Tamil morpheme-by-morpheme, for instance. SOV seems to be a very stable system that occurs widely and functions successfully, to the point where common solutions to common problems become evident. – jlawler Jul 8 '14 at 14:27

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