This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Nuts and Bolts: verbiage.

There's a story about a translator who fell silent while translating German at an international conference.

'What's wrong?' demanded a hundred helpless delegates.

'I'm sorry,' said the translator, 'but all the verbs are on the last page.'

It's a nice story, though very unlikely to be true. German verbs can arrive at the end of hundred-word sentences, but only when people are showing off: German sentences, like all sentences, are usually much shorter.

Putting a verb at the end of a sentence may seem odd to an English speaker, but they have to go somewhere and if you think about it a simple sentence containing only a person who does something (the Subject, also known as S) the thing he does (the Verb, V) and the thing to which he does it (the Object, O) then there are only six possible ways of putting that sentence together:* SOV, SVO, OSV, OVS, VSO, and VOS. 

Most languages use a mixture of these (think how word order changes, for instance, if you are asking a question) though most languages have one order commoner than the others. A few languages (Finnish, Persian, Romanian and Basque, for example) aren't too bothered, generally, about word order (though Finnish uses SVO if you can't be sure what the sentence means otherwise). Japanese sentences usually end with a verb, but whether the Subject or Object comes first is flexible.

So what's the commonest way to put a sentence together? SOV is used by about 45% of languages, and is believed to be the original way, historically, that people put sentences together. It's still used in, for example, Hindi and Korean. Next commonest (42%) is the SVO of English, Italian, Mandarin and Russian.

The rest are much rarer: VSO (Irish, Malay, Tuareg-Berber) 9%; VOS (Malagasy, Baure) 3%; OVS (Apalai, Hixkatyana) 1%, and poor old OSV, which is used in the Warao language of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, counts statistically as 0%.

The great thing is that as far as I know no one has ever gone to war over word order...

...but then I mustn't be putting ideas into people's heads.

Word To Use Today: any verb at all. Just place it carefully.

*Unless you're speaking a language where verbs, for instance, are split up, but I'm ignoring those for now.

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