Latin was a language which predominant order was Subject-Object-Verb, as in the example proverb Errare Humanum Est

So, why all its modern descendents are predominantly Subject-Verb-Object order? Or are there some that I don't which order is not that?

I can assert the SVO order on Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian and Romanian, which are the most represented in Europe. May be there is some not so popular language that is not SVO.

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    Since the descendents lost the case system, they had to introduce a kind of a new separator that separarates the 2 nominal parts of the sentence, subject and object. The only way to do that was to do it syntactically, that's to insert the verb between the subject and the object, no other way was possible. That's it. – Yellow Sky Sep 11 '14 at 14:38
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    @jlawler - Romance personal pronouns keep the subject vs. object forms, that's why, if the object is expressed by a personal pronoun, the sentence is still SVO. But this doesn't work if the object is expressed by a noun. That's all that I meant. – Yellow Sky Sep 11 '14 at 15:32
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    Humanum is not an object in Errare humanum est, but a predicate. – TKR Sep 11 '14 at 17:19
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    @YellowSky: 'Eu te amo' is Brazilian. In Portugal's Portuguese is 'Eu amo-te'. – sergiol Sep 11 '14 at 18:34
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    @YellowSky, I don't understand your arguments. Why do you need a separator? Why can't SOV order be a syntactical way to mark the subject and object? – dainichi Sep 17 '14 at 14:46

The premise holds for most Romance languages but it is difficult to categorize Spanish (the largest latin language by number of speakers) as an SVO language. The earliest texts in medieval Spanish were all VSO and I, as a native Spanish speaker, tend to use VSO sentences slightly more often than SVO.

I will say "Ya ha llegado Jose a casa" (already has arrived Joe home) much more commonly than "Jose ya ha llegado a casa" (Joe already has arrived home) for example which sounds slightly clumsy.

Even when encapusaled within a subjunctive sentence (Quiero que venga Jose) the verb preceeds the object which sounds very alien to a French or Italian speaker for example - you would never say "Je veux que vienne Jose").

VSO sentences however are actually totally forbidden in Italian and French. They simply don't exist. French is the most strictly SVO language, followed by Italian. The least strict is Spanish where all sentence orders are allowed except SOV.

Why is this the case? Hard to say. Possibly Arabic influence on Spanish which has a similar flexibility between VSO and SVO. After all Castilian Spanish was partly built on the Mozarabic dialect of Kingdom of Toledo - a region where Christians were bilingual even for a good two centuries after its reconquest.

  • OVS is perfectly possible in Spanish as well, albeit with the limitation that the object has to be pronominal (lo dijo José). Did you mean to say that OSV is the only disallowed order? Barring emphatic topicalisation, I cannot think of any OSV clauses that sound grammatical (and even with emphatic topicalisation, you’d usually have a resumptive pronominal object as well: esto yo no [lo] quise). Though VOS seems quite impossible to me too (hice lo yo?). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 29 '20 at 19:53
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I meant All except SOV. Sorry typo... Fixed. VOS is doable if more rare: "Hoy hizo la comida mi madre" is correct. Spanish is extremely flexible compared to other Romance languages. – Alex Oct 30 '20 at 12:08
  • But SOV is exceedingly common – mandatory, in fact, when the object is a pronoun (yo lo hice), unless of course the subject gets shifted so you get OVS. With non-pronominal objects, I agree SOV is at best highly artificial (I suppose hoy mi madre la comida hizo could just about work in a poem or song, but probably not in regular speech). But I think OSV should be equally impossible – la comida mi madre hizo sounds as wrong to me, at least without a resumptive object pronoun after the subject. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 30 '20 at 12:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes true OSV is impossible but I'm not sure "yo lo hice" counts as an SOV sentence. Lo is a pronoun and I'm not sure it counts as a "object". VOS is typical of Asian languages - Persian, Hindi, Urdu and Japanese for example. Mein ghar ko ja ra ha hoon in Hindi - literally "Me house to am going". This is a proper VOS sentence - como dios manda as we say. – Alex Oct 30 '20 at 18:09

It is a superstition to think that all languages are predominantly SOV, SVO, VSO or some other combination of these hieroglyphs. This is not true of Latin, and certainly not true of ancient Indo-European languages like Sanskrit or Avestan, where the word order is almost completely free.

As TKR has very rightly pointed out, the “proverb” “errare humanum est” is not an example of SOV because humanum is not an object but a predicate adjective. By the way, this “famous proverb” is not actually quoted by any ancient author; the oldest attested version of it is in St Augustine of Hippo, who in fact wrote “humanum fuit errare”, so: predicate + verb + subject.

This said, I would actually agree that in the modern Romance languages the usual sequence is SVO. In cases like “je t’aime” one could argue that “t(e)” is not a direct object but part of the verb complex; it is not a word in its own right. We also say things like “Toi je t’aime”, which you might want to analyse as OSOV, though I would analyse it as topic + (clitic+clitic+verb). Neither “je” nor “te” can be used as an isolated statement in French. The response to the question “Whom do you love?” is not “te” but “toi”.

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