Friday, September 01, 2006

What free word order is really all about

Occasionally, I hear Japanese described as free word order because it allows argument scrambling. Then I think of Latin, and go "Hah!" The other day I happened to come across a bit of Virgil that nicely illustrates Latin's horrifying (at least to readers) ability to not only scramble the relative order of noun phrases, but break them up into little bits and scatter them about like confetti:

ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.


Which might be approximated as:

last Cumaean's comes already song's season;
great from whole centuries' is-born cycle.

but means:
Already the Cumaean [oracle]'s song's last season comes;
The great cycle of the centuries is born anew ("from whole").

For Chomskyan syntacticians, I suppose you'd have to look at it as a kind of quantifer floating-like phenomenon gone mad. Case marking and agreement do help disambiguate it a bit, but still...

This piece of verse, incidentally, is apparently where the slogan on the US dollar, "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (New Order of the Centuries - aka New World Order:), comes from, though I don't see "Novus" in there. Seeing as medieval Christians used to think this poem predicted the coming of the Messiah, and here it's being used rather blatantly to refer to the founding of the US, this is a pretty amazing piece of boasting if you think about it; I guess the "city on a hill" conception of America has been popular for a long time...

17 comments:

Yaser said...

My syntax & semantics professor did field work in Australia. If you want some Super scrambler languages check those out. Roughly translated, I could say the sentence, "The red kangaroo was speared by the black spear" as, "red the the kangaroo speared black by." I kid you not.

Paul Davidson said...

As you probably know, Japanese demands no specific word order except for the verb at the end. Nevertheless, the order in which the bits are arranged definitely makes for different nuances and emphases.

Antoine Cassar said...

Does the US dollar really have those words written on it?

Minchia!

Ian Myles Slater said...

Since 1935, the reverse of the US dollar has displayed both sides of the Great Seal, not just the Bald Eagle with "E Pluribus Unum." The less familiar reverse, showing a Pyramid-with-Eye, has "Annuit Coeptis" above it, and "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (New Order of the Ages) on a banner underneath.

The latter is indeed adapted from the Fourth Eclogue, lines 4-7 (which supplies the required "new"):

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

(Wikipedia supplies this translation: The last prophecy has come to the Cumaean Sibyl; a brand new great order of the ages is born; for now the Virgin and the age of Saturn have returned; now a new Child has been sent from the heavens.")

It has obviously been radically adapted; the hexametric "saeclorum" (in a rather medieval spelling) for prose "saeculorum" provides a clue (or cue).

The "Annuit Coeptis" also seems to be a Virgilian allusion. It indicates something like "[he] has favored our beginnings," or, acccording to the US State Department, "God Has Approved Our Undertaking" -- the immediate reference being in any case to the Eye. In a prayer in Aeneid, book IX, line 625: "Jupiter omnipotens, audacibus annue coeptis," Almighty Jove, approve my daring beginning."

Modern editions may have the more etymological spelling "adnue," and "nod to" seems to be the -- rather Homeric -- image.

As it happens, the more familiar "E Pluribus Unum" is usually traced to another Virgilian -- or pseudo-Virgilian -- poem "Moretum," which does have "color est e pluribus unus." The actual phrase was familiar at the time from the special title page for bound annual volumes of "The Gentleman's Magazine" -- many issues made into one.

bulbul said...

This free word order works in Slavic and Baltic languages as well. For example, magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo could be translated in Slovak as "veľký sa odznova započne storočí kruh". Perfectly grammatical. But then again, it does sound a bit old-timey. In fact, I'm pretty sure Yoda spoke like that our version of Star Wars :o)
There are many examples of this type of syntax in 18th and 19th century Slovak and Czech poetry (which is understandable), but there are many such examples in prose as well, which makes me suspect Latin influence. And that brings me to a question: would sentences of this type be really uttered by your average civis romanus? To see this kind of word order in poetry is really not surprising, considering all the rhythm and (later) rhyme requirements. But everyday speech?

David Marjanović said...

Oh, yeah, Latin poetry... also known as The Popular "Look For The Verb" Game. I was plagued with it for four years in school. The declension and conjugation does (almost always) disambiguate it completely, but it nevertheless takes a long time to figure it out. An hour-long test usually consisted of one (long) sentence.

Yaser, is the spear missing in your example? If it isn't, the example looks rather harmless. It is no worse than Cicero's alliteration "Magno me metu liberabis!" -- "from-a-great me (from-a-)fear will-you-liberate", and that's in a speech against a political enemy, not in a epic poem that is Homer fanfic.

Does the language you are talking about have articles? (Latin doesn't. Classical Greek does -- and is, I hear, unable to disrupt article-plus-noun, in spite of doing everything else that Latin does to shoehorn itself into hexameters.)

David Marjanović said...

Everyday speech? Naaah. Have a look at the Latin bible, or even at De Bello Gallico: "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quam unam incolunt Belgae..." I'm not aware of a language that puts numerals behind nouns (even for emphasis, which Caesar seems to have done here), but apart from this, the sentence sounds exactly like Modern Standard Average European.

I've noticed the freer Slavic word order too. For example, in Russian you'd usually put adjectives before nouns, but when translating scientific names, you put them behind, and nobody seems to notice. You can also put participal constructions (which would be dependent clauses elsewhere) seemingly anywhere into a sentence, and this is done in good style. Even for simple sentences, some Wikipedia page on Polish demonstrates that, to emphasize different words, all six imaginable variations (SVO, OSV, etc.) can be used, even though SVO is the default.

Bülbül has not explicitely mentioned that Slovak does not mind giving up its stress pattern (always on the first syllable) in songs or apparently poetry, just like French (always on the last syllable of the... utterance), Serbocroatian (which has less simple stress rules), or Latin (which has rather complex ones). You can't do that with German (or English). So, to make a hexameter in German, you not only have to shuffle the words around to get the long syllables in the right places, you also have to get the stressed syllables in the right places at the same time, because otherwise the result would sound totally ridiculous. Plus, while word order does permit a lot of reshuffles for emphasis (and then some in poetry!), it is still stricter than Balto-Slavic or Greek or Latin. No wonder classical verse has never caught on in German -- I've read it has in Hungarian.

Hmmm...

That said, stress and length are not independent in German, long syllables have to have at least secondary stress... in Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian stress and length have never heard of each other... but I digress. :-]

Baraka said...

Salaam L,

How're you doing?

I saw this site on the Arabic language & thoguht of you!

http://arabicgems.wordpress.com/

Warmly,
b

bulbul said...

Everyday speech? Naaah. Have a look at the Latin bible, or even at De Bello Gallico
As a matter of fact, I was browsing through DBG just as your comment showed up :o)

in Russian you'd usually put adjectives before nouns, but when translating scientific names
I blame Latin for this, too. Same goes for most Slavic languages. We have "kysličník uhoľnatý" and "pes (canis lupus) domáci (domesticus)".

Bülbül
Drop the umlauts, please. I'm the Arabic/Persian kind, not the Turkish kind :o)

has not explicitely mentioned that Slovak does not mind giving up its stress pattern
... and that's because our stress pattern is a weird thing. The canonical first syllable stress is not a natural occurrence in most dialects and did not become a fixed rule until 1930s. See Hviezdoslav, for example.

bulbul said...

"kysličník uhoľnatý"
i.e. carbon monoxide

... and that's because our stress pattern is a weird thing.
Let's not forget all the short words (personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, particles and auxiliary verbs) usually referred to as "príklonly", which can never be stressed and thus help to shuffle the stress around a bit.

David Marjanović said...

I blame Latin for this, too. Same goes for most Slavic languages.
Polish being an interesting exception...

The canonical first syllable stress is not a natural occurrence in most dialects and did not become a fixed rule until 1930s.
Oh.

Drop the umlauts, please. I'm the Arabic/Persian kind, not the Turkish kind :o)
Awww. The Turkish one sounds much nicer :o)

See Hviezdoslav, for example.
Who is that?

Let's not forget all the short words (personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, particles and auxiliary verbs) usually referred to as "príklonly", which can never be stressed and thus help to shuffle the stress around a bit.
Interesting. Russian stresses them regularly (na pol = on the floor)...

bulbul said...

Hviezdoslav
Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, one the greatest Slovak poets. Or so has every school kid been told :o) Some of his earlier poetry has always felt a little strange to me. I couldn't say why, until I heard some it on an old recording and realized that the accent was all 'wrong' and not just because the rhythm required it.

Russian stresses them regularly (na pol = on the floor)
Correction: in Standard Slovak, as in Russian, preposition can be stressed, so "on the floor" would be [NA zemi]]. But same does not apply to all dialects/accents. So in my native dialect, the same phrase would be pronounced [na ŽEmi].

Yaser said...

Yes, I forgot the word spear. Simply put, from what I understood (which was little because we spent just a tangent's worth of time on the subject) they can do almost total scrambling. Far more than Japanese, since it requires a verb at the end. How should I say, even the articles and prepositions can get shuffled around without preference to what they are referring to. He explained how they understood it but it was too fastcinating to remember. It dealt with a different system of case marking then the usual Accusative, nominitave etc.

When I speak my dialect of farsi (Kabul), we can scramble a little, saying things like, "Ma raftum ba maghaza" [I went to the store] which is contrary to the usual verb final order of "Ba maghaza ma raftum" or usually we drop the subject anyways (I love verb inflections), so it would be "ba Maghaza raftum" [To the market (I) went]. In everyday speech, we usually make it verb final, but its plausible to move the verb around, and happens when we are speaking slowly, like if one is forming their thoughts as they speak, the order might be rearranged.

David Marjanović said...

It's similar in my dialect of German -- it, too, allows you to say things closer to the order in which they pop up in your mind than standard German does.

When you scramble like that, does it carry emphasis? It does in German (...all kinds of German that I'm aware of... whatever that may mean). That means, SVO is standard, but when asked "where have you been?", you'd naturally say "to the market have I gone" in this order, merely to make clear which part of your answer actually answers the question. To do this in English seems to require poetry.

Yaser said...

Yea, if I scramble in that manner, it does usually translate into emphasis. Standard order is SOV in Farsi, like most languages in that region/family.

John Cowan said...

German actually isn't SVO, it's SOV, with a superseding rule forcing the verb to be second in independent clauses. English used to have that verb-second rule, too, as did Old French.

Now we can still front things ("Today I went to the office") but are much more closely confined to SVO; "today went I" is right out, except (as you say) in poetry that is striving for archaism.

David Marjanović said...

As a native speaker, I do think German is SVO, with a rule that plenty of conjunctions trigger SOV. (Not all do. For example, there are two ways of saying, or rather writing, "because it is that way": weil es so ist -- SOV -- and denn es ist so -- SVO. In my dialect, denn does not exist, and the synonym weil can go with both word orders.)