Free Word Order for Isolating Language

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about a language that I’m just starting to create. I can’t yet give many details about it, as very few of them have been set in stone, but more information will come as a it becomes available.

Today, however, I just want to talk about word order.

I’ve had the idea knocking around in my head for a while to build a language that allowed “free” word order (defined here as word order in which the placement of all major constituents is dictated by things other than the theta role of the consituent in question) without needing cases or overt direct/inverse marking on the verb.

Assuming we have a default word order of SVO, it’s relatively easy to pull the object up into the theme (initial) position, or the subject into the focus (final) position, without making it difficult to determine which noun is which — the listener can simply assume that the NP closest to the verb should be interpreted according to its position relative to the verb, and the other NP should be given the other role.

However, things break down if you want to move *both* NPs, or if you want to move the verb into focus position while keeping the subject as theme (or vice versa for the verb in theme position with the object as focus). You could of course also declare if there are two NPs in the sentence, the first is the subject and the second the object, but that would just present the same problem, only in reverse.

So far — and this is in no way set in stone yet, although I’m likely to stick with it or something very much like it — I think I’m going to go with something like this:

  • Declare the basic, pre-movement word order to be PSVO, with P being a particle or adverb of some sort that will be present in most if not all sentences (if there are sentences in which it is absent, we may end up with a few ambiguous cases, which is no big deal and could probably be worked around by inserting a dummy particle).
  • Require that some constituent move up into the theme position and another move into the focus position. By default, these will most likely be the subject and object respectively, or subject and verb in an intransitive sentence. Note that this means that the unmarked surface word order will be SPVO.
  • Finally, require that if a constituent immediately preceded by the particle moves to the focus position, the particle moves with it (keeping its place immediately before it). This occurs even if another constituent has already moved, although it does not occur if the particle itself has moved to one of the two positions.

So, for the most basic transitive sentence, we end up with the following grid:

Focus is S Focus is O Focus is V Focus is P
Theme is S N/A SPVO (NPVN) SOPV ( PV) SVOP (NVNP)
Theme is O OVPS (NVPN) N/A OPSV (NPNV) OSVP (NNVP)
Theme is V VOPS (VNPN) VPSO (VP ) N/A VSOP (VNNP)
Theme is P PVOS (PV ) PSVO (PNVN) PSOV (PNNV) N/A

Once we add other constituents, sentences will get longer, but the basic rules will still apply.

Over time, of course, we may see one or two basic particles becoming generalized as a subject marker, possibly with an added element of some sort of TMA marking. But we’ll save that for a descendent of this language.

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