Some interesting language bits for your day
In English, it sounds strange to say "the green, great dragon" instead of "the great, green dragon." Why?
Take a look at the first picture, a note which +Don McArthur
shared. This rule probably isn't entirely universal (I'm sure that, with some time, I could come up with a counterexample), but it's pretty close to it: adjectives in English, and in other languages as well, follow a particular order.
This kind of thing is an example of linguistic spectra. In this case, it's a spectrum of binding strength:
some modifiers "bind" more strongly to the things they modify, affecting their nature more intrinsically, and languages systematically place them closer to the things which they modify. For example, we apparently see color as a more intrinsic attribute of a thing than size, because size can change more easily; thus we have a great (green dragon) rather than a green (great dragon).
My favorite example of linguistic spectra comes from a phenomenon called split ergativity.
Consider the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs:
Intransitive: "noun(I) verbed"
Transitive: "noun(T1) verbed noun(T2)"
Languages mark these nouns in different ways. If you speak any Germanic or Romance language, for example, you would say that I and T1 are both subjects of their sentences, and T2 is an object. These languages mark that behavior in various ways. In English, we do it mostly with word order – "Anna killed Clara" and "Clara killed Anna" have different meanings. With pronouns, we actually use different words: subjects like "I ate" or "I ate Bob," and objects like "Bob ate me." Other Indo-European languages like Latin take this farther, and explicitly mark what's called "case:" a change in the shape of a noun to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, in Latin you would say
"Anna eduit" ("Anna ate")
"Anna eduit Claram" ("Anna ate Clara" – note the "-m" indicating that Clara is a direct object)
Latin doesn't care as much about word order; "Claram eduit Anna" would still mean that Anna ate Clara, it would just be a kind of unusual way to say it. (Sort of like saying "Clara, Anna ate" in English)
What's important here is that these languages treat the subjects of transitive and intransitive sentences in the same way, and the objects of intransitive sentences differently. Do all languages do this?
No! Another way to do it is what's called ergative-absolutive.
In languages like Turkish, the subjects of intransitive sentences are treated the same way as the objects
of transitive sentences, and it's the subjects of transitive sentences which are different.
What's the idea here? It's because both the intransitive subjects and the transitive objects are the ones being affected
by the verb, while the transitive subject is staying the same but affecting someone else. In these languages, instead of distinguishing subjects and objects (highlighting who or what performed an action), we distinguish "agents" and "patients" – highlighting who or what was changed by an action.
(In languages like these which use case markings on words to distinguish them, the agent is in what's called the "absolutive" case, and the patient "ergative," thus the name. In languages like Latin and English, subjects are "nominative" and objects are "accusative," so these are called nominative-accusative languages)
Are there any other
options? Well, we're trying to group three things, so there are a few possibilities. (See the second picture...)
1. Intransitive subject, transitive subject, and transitive object are all the same.
2. Subjects are the same, objects are different. (English, German, Latin)
3. Agents are the same, patients are different. (Turkish, Tibetan, Pashto)
4. Things in transitive sentences are the same, things in intransitive sentences are different.
5. All three are different.
It turns out that options 1 and 4 don't happen, and for a simple reason: if you had no way to tell apart a transitive subject from an object, then it would never be clear just who ate whom.
Option 5 does exist in a few languages, but it's not as common.
But what's interesting is that there's a sixth option, called "split ergativity," which languages like Hindi use: some verbs are nominative-accusative, and other verbs are absolutive-ergative!
This might seem incredibly confusing, at first: now you have to remember which verbs use which kind of grammar?!
But it turns out that split ergative languages have a pattern to them, as well.
The rule is this: line up all the verbs in the world, and order them by how much they change the state of a thing. Maybe moving changes your state less than changing color; both of those change your state less than being born or dying.
Somewhere in the middle of this line, you will draw a border. If a verb is all about changing the state of something, it will use the absolutive-ergative rules, and grammar will distinguish the thing which was affected from the thing that wasn't; if the verb doesn't really change states much, then grammar instead distinguishes between who did it and who didn't, and you use nominative-accusative rules.
What's most fascinating to me about this is this: different split-ergative languages put the boundary in different places. But there's good evidence that all languages are using the same
ordering of verbs! That is, if one language considers a verb to be "more" state-changing than another verb, chances are that all the other languages will agree as well.
So this really is another linguistic spectrum, and like the great, green dragons we started with, it also has to do with how "fundamental" we see a property as being.
The net result: the more fundamental we see a thing as being, the more tightly its modifiers bind to the thing, and the more likely we are to view a sentence that talks about it changing as really being about the thing that is being changed, rather than about the thing doing the changing.
It's one of those interesting signs of universal structures underpinning human language.