What’s word order got to do with it?

Subjects, verbs, and direct objects, oh my! Ever felt frustrated by any of these guys when trying to pick up a new language? (It’s OK to admit it – so have we!) The good news is, the vast majority of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken around the globe use either the SVO (subject-verb-object) or SOV (subject-object-verb) structure. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to conjugate your verbs or identify the correct gender of a noun, but it can provide some comfort to know that there is a familiar logic behind it all.

First, some background information on word order typology – the study of word order within different languages. It’s actually possible to trace the history of word order back to its most recent “ancestors,” according to a paper written by Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen. The linguists found that SOV (subject-object-verb) was originally used in all of these ancestor languages, and different patterns evolved over time like a genetic tree. The challenge is that many languages don’t always employ a subject or an object, and still more that don’t prefer any specific word order at all – yikes! Here, we’ve chosen to break down the sentence structure of three widely spoken languages.

Japanese: SOV (Subject-Object-Verb).

You might be surprised to hear that Japanese uses the single most common sentence structure in the world, similar to many Indo-European languages such as Turkish. They put their subject first, followed by the object, and finally the verb – although the only strict rule in Japanese is that the verb is placed at the end of the sentence. For example, the sentence “he soccer plays” would be grammatically correct in Japanese. However, Japanese is one of those languages that does not need a subject or an object when they are understood from context. An example here would be hana-ga nagai, meaning “(their) noses are long,” but this can be simplified to just nagai, which means “(they) are long.” Since shorter tends to be better for Japanese speakers, the second option is preferred.

Classical Arabic: VSO (Verb-Subject-Object).

If you’re studying Arabic, we applaud you – it’s known as being one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers! Arabic is a Semitic language and lacks most of the vowels and words we are used to seeing in English. Moreover, formal Arabic usually uses the VSO sentence structure, such as in the sentence yaqraʼu l-mudarrisu l-kitāba (literally, “reads the teacher the book”). The verb is considered more important than the subject in these types of statements, which is why it comes first. Interestingly, Spanish is another language that occasionally employs VSO structure, along with the more common SVO. Keep reading to find out more!

Spanish: SVO (Subject-Verb-Object).

Like English, Spanish uses the familiar subject-verb-object structure that most of us learned at a young age. This is a characteristic of all Romance languages, including Portuguese and French. What’s the catch? Spanish allows for many variations within this structure, while English does not. For example, the sentence ¿Tienes pizza aquí? (“Do you have pizza here?”) is grammatically correct, but it’s common to hear the sentence ¿Pizza tienes aquí? (Literally, “Pizza do you have here?”) in a Spanish-speaking country as well, and they both mean the exact same thing. When there is a pronoun involved, Spanish often moves it before the verb, like in the sentence Les llevamos a casa (“We take them home”), where les represents the pronoun “them.” As mentioned previously, Spanish even uses the VSO structure in some cases, as in the sentence Ayer compró Natalia el cuaderno (literally, “Yesterday bought Natalia the notebook”). Whew! Luckily, it’s not really as complicated as it sounds – you can always fall back on the good ol’ SVO form to help you out when learning Spanish.

Like English, Spanish uses the familiar subject-verb-object structure that most of us learned at a young age. This is a characteristic of all Romance languages, including Portuguese and French. What’s the catch? Spanish allows for many variations within this structure, while English does not. For example, the sentence ¿Tienes pizza aquí? (“Do you have pizza here?”) is grammatically correct, but it’s common to hear the sentence ¿Pizza tienes aquí? (Literally, “Pizza do you have here?”) in a Spanish-speaking country as well, and they both mean the exact same thing. When there is a pronoun involved, Spanish often moves it before the verb, like in the sentence Les llevamos a casa (“We take them home”), where les represents the pronoun “them.” As mentioned previously, Spanish even uses the VSO structure in some cases, as in the sentence Ayer compró Natalia el cuaderno (literally, “Yesterday bought Natalia the notebook”). Whew! Luckily, it’s not really as complicated as it sounds – you can always fall back on the good ol’ SVO form to help you out when learning Spanish.

This is where Mango comes in.

As avid language nerds ourselves, we realize that mastering sentence structure is not something that happens overnight. It requires some serious dedication, especially if you’ve chosen to pursue a language with a less common word order. We’ve created comprehensive courses that use Semantic Color Mapping to decipher even the toughest subject-object-verb combinations, so you’ll feel more confident when using them in real life. This tool automatically shows the relationship between your native language and your target language with corresponding colors. Simply check out if your local library offers Mango for free to get started on a language today – it’s that easy!

Meet The Author:
Author - Britta Wilhelmsen
Britta Wilhelmsen
Linguist at Mango Languages
Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she’s not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires’ beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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