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Na'vi Linguistics: Free Word Order

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There's a big problem with the phrase "free word order" — it's linguistic code.  It doesn't mean the same thing to linguists that it means to everyone else, which leads to some confusion and misunderstanding.  So here's a quick interpretation of Linguistickese for people, which I hope can clear up a few confusions.

Free Constituents!
When a linguist says "free word order" they don't actually mean "words," they mean "free constituent order."  The problem is "constituent" is just a pain to say, and very often the constituents of any given phrase will be single words.  Just not always.  Here are two sentences where I have marked the subject constituent in purple and the direct object constituent in orange:

 The dog bit the man.
 The dangerous dog bit the man I saw yesterday.

Notice that for the purposes of syntax, "constituents" can be quite simple ("the man") or more complex ("the man I saw yesterday").  This matters because even if your constituent order is free the word order within constituents may be quite constrained.  For example, many languages don't let you break up constituents willy-nilly.  Na'vi appears to be the same.  If you want to use the constituent "the dangerous demon," lehrrapa vrrtep you can't really shove the verb of the sentence into the middle of them — they are an indivisible whole (even if you can swap the words vrrtep lehrrap).  A language that has grammatical gender (like Latin or Ancient Greek) has tricks that allows it a little freedom to break up even constituents.

Free Order
Next, when a linguist says the word order is "free" that does not mean word order has no significance.  It simply means that it does not matter for syntax.  In English, word order determines syntactic role:

  The man bit the dog.
  The dog bit the man.

The two phrases above describe completely different states of affairs.  What we can call the "propositional content" of the sentence, to borrow a term from logic, is radically changed by a change in word order.  But in Na'vi we use case endings to mark out the syntactic roles of constituents, which lets us shuffle things around without changing the propositional content:

  Nantangìl frolìp tutet.
  Tutet frolìp nantangìl.
  Frolìp tutet nantangìl, etc.

All these different word orders encode identical propositional content, thanks to the case endings.  However, it is a little misleading to say that they mean the same thing.  Talking is a social act.  We don't just stand around uttering propositional content, but we do things to make sure the people we're talking to understand which parts we think are important, we make sure they can follow the narration, and we often make clear how it is we feel about the information we are conveying.  In fixed word order languages we have to use intonation or special words to do these additional jobs, but in a free word order language, since word order no longer matters for encoding propositional content clearly, you can use the word order to do some of these other jobs.

In a longer conversation anything we say will have both old information (which we've just mentioned) and new information (which we're adding to the full scenario we're trying to communicate).  We have to keep mentioning old information because we usually need to explain how the new information fits into the big picture.  In free word order languages, old information and new information tend to land in particular places.  In ancient Greek, for example, a common word order is:

  Old Information - New Information - Verb - Everything Else

Based on what Frommer has said elsewhere, it sure looks like new information (or possibly contrastive or especially important information) goes at the end of a clause:

--- Quote from: Frommer ---(The end of the sentence is where the "punch" comes.)

--- End quote ---

But apart from that we don't yet have all the details.  But from now on, when you hear the phrase "free word order" know that it does not mean the word order has no significance at all, but that the word order is used to guide our listeners' understanding of what we're saying.  Everything from basic discourse matters I've discussed above to style and politeness matters could come into play with Na'vi word order.  We just have to wait for Frommer to fine tune the details.

kewnya txamew'itan:
This ought to be a very useful post, free word order is a very misleading term.

Ngaru irayo seiyi oe nìtxan, ma William.  I'm sure this will help people—it has me =)

Good write-up, unfortunately I didn't learn anything new but I imagine this will be a big help to the beginners who are trying to wrap their heads around the linguistic terms involved in "free word order". I especially liked how you defined "free constituent order" as the true meaning of "free word order".

Can't wait to see what other little nuances word order has for Na'vi when it gets fleshed out some more.

Tsuksìm atsawl (KaPTan):
yes, thanks alot, it is a real help.  i've been "studying" for like 4 months now, too bad i have had school, and i won't be here for the summer :(


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