VSO and Master Yoda

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Share/Save/Bookmark
Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

Right, I'll simply assume that you are all Star Wars fans and know Master Yoda.

Ever notice something weird about the way he talks? I mean aside from the creaky voice. Considering that he's speaking English (in a galaxy far far away ... how weird is that??) his word order is all up the spout. To put it in linguist-speak, he is using OSV word order. Which makes it sounds so weird because English really is an SVO language.

OK, maybe I should elucidate on this S, V and O stuff first. Bluntly speaking, all languages make utterances that contain information about who is doing what to whom. Nit-picking about Agent-Patient languages aside, the WHO bit is commonly called the subject (=S), the ACTION bit is the verb (=V) and the TO WHOM bit is the object (=O). Broadly speaking.

Take a simple English sentence: Jack is kicking Jill. Who's doing what to whom? Jack is the one who's doing the kicking, so he's the subject (= S). Kicking is the action in question, so that bit is the verb (= V). And Jill is getting muddy footprints on her new Chanel costume, so she is the object (= O) here. So, in this sentence the word order is SVO - subject first, then the verb and last the action. If you look at more English sentences, you'll see that that is the overall structure of an English sentence. Which brings us back to Master Yoda (we're not worthy, we're not worthy!). Consider his ominous revelation to Luke Skywalker: "Your father he is". Hm ... here we start with the object first, followed by the subject and then by the verb at the end. OSV. While not all his sentences follow this strict structure, a lot of them do and that is what makes him sound so odd.

Now, for a bit of linguistic trivia. We've determined that languages beg to differ as to their word order. So, how many different combinations of S, O and V does that give us? Yup, six: SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS. By far, the most common two are actually SVO & SOV which are used by roughly 75% of the world's languages, including English. Another 15% or so use VSO and the remaining three make up about 10% of the world's languages. Bet you're dying for some examples, so I'll try not to disappoint you.

SVO

English

Jack kicks Jill
S V O

Vietnamese

Bích ăn com
S V O
Bích eat rice
Bích eats rice

Haussa

bā yā
NEG S
not he
cîncîn
V
eat
nāmā
O
meat
he doesn't eat meat

SOV

Chechen

as Gürzhiini motta büütsa
S O V
I Georgian language speak
I speak Georgian

Tongan

kuo u sio he kulī
PAST S V O
-ed I see the dog
I have seen the dog

SVO

Japanese

Ryōko wa terebi o mimasu
S TOPIC O DAT V
Ryōko television watch
Ryoko watches TV

VSO

Welsh

mae dwy ferch gyda fi
V S O
be two girl with I
I have two daughters

Cebuano

adúna siyáy duhá ka anák
V S O
have she two COUNT child
she has two children

Irish

phóg an madra
PAST-V S O
-ed kiss he the dog
he kissed the dog

VOS

Malagasy

manana akondra aho
V O S
have banana I
I have a banana

Tzotzil

lá snákan ti vĩnike yu'un ti xpétule
PAST V THEME AGENS S
-ed seat man Peter
Peter seated the man

OSV

Apurinã

anana nota apa
O S V
pineapple I fetch
I fetch a pineapple

Amharic

shay yït'at'all
O S-V
tea he-drinking
he's drinking the tea

Yanomami

rorõ ya kona taarema
O S INC V
cigarette I see
I see a cigarette

OVS

Hixkaryana

toto yonoye kana
O V S
the fish ate the man
the man ate the fish

Xavante

ma wĩrĩ ni
PAST O-V S
-ed him kill someone
someone killed him

So what?

Wonderful, but where does that leave us? Well, from the above Irish example, some of you may have already guessed that Gaelic falls into the select category of VSO languages. And it's quite strict about that - which is lucky for us.

Practically speaking, this means that no matter what bits come in between, the verb comes before the subject, and the subject before the object. Let's look at a few examples:

bidh
V
mi
S
ag ithe ùbhlan
O (technically a predicate)
a-màireach, a bhalaich
blabla
chunnaic
V
mo mhàthair
S

O
aig an doras
O/Predicate
bhiodh
V
m' athair
S
ag obair air càraichean
O/Predicate
nuair a bha mi òg
blabla

So, why did I say "quite strict"? Because there's a select group of particles that can come before the verb: interrogative particles, past tense markers, negative particles, and others. Here's a list of particles which can commonly come before the verb and a few examples:

Pre-verbial particle
Sentence Initial
Example
An? An deach thu?
Nach? Nach deach thu?
Cha(n) Cha tuig thu
Có? Có tha seo?
Càit? Càit a bheil thu?
Cuin? Cuin a thig thu?
Carson? Carson a thig thu?
Ma Ma thig thu, gheibh thu aran.
Nan Nan rachadh tu ann, gheibheadh tu aran.
(Gu) dé? Dé tha seo?
Dh' Dh'fhàg mi.
Pre-verbial particle
Phrase Initial
Example
... far an... An t-àite far an robh mi.
... nuair a... Bha mi 'nam chadal nuair a thàinig e.
... gun... Chuala mi gun robh thu ann.
... carson a... Chuala mi carson a bha thu ann.
... a... Chunnaic mi an duine a bha ann.
... ma... Chì sinn thu ma thig thu.
... nan... Bhiodh tu gòradh nan digeadh tu ann.
... do... Cha do dh'fhàg mi an taigh.

Some of these phrase intial pre-verbial particles can surface in tandem, with a/an, or alone, without a/an. However, in some cases, the pairing is obligatory, as is the case with far an which only surfaces as far an. Particles which end in a vowel and which take the relative particle a regularly swallow up the a if they're next to each other. Some examples:

Particles Example
cuin + a cuin a bha thu an-seo?
có + a có tha seo?
có + a có fon ghréin a tha seo?
dé + a dé ghabhas tu?
dé + a dé an t-aran a dh'itheas tu?

So your average sentence will look like this:

Preverbial particle(s) Verb Subject Predicate/Object
- Tha Calum an-seo.
A bheil Calum an-seo?
Nach eil Calum an-seo?
Chan eil Calum an-seo.
- Bha Calum an-seo.
An robh Calum an-seo?
Nach robh Calum an-seo?
Cha robh Calum an-seo.
- Bhuail do mhàthair mi.
An do bhuail do mhàthair mi?
Nach do bhuail do mhàthair mi?
Cha bhuail do mhàthair mi.
- Chitheadh tu iad.
Am facadh tu iad?
Nach fhacadh tu iad?
Chan fhacadh tu iad.
Càit an robh thu nuair a thuit mi?

For example:

am
Pre-verbial particle
bi
V
mi
S
ag ithe ùbhlan a-màireach, a bhalaich?
Predicate (aka the rest)
ø
Pre-verbial particle
chunnaic
V
mo mhàthair
S
cù aig an doras
Predicate (aka the rest)
dh'
Pre-verbial particle
fhàg
V
mo mhàthair
S
cù aig an doras
Predicate (aka the rest)
cha
Pre-verbial particle
bhiodh
V
m' athair
S
ag obair air càraichean nuair a bha mi òg
Predicate (aka the rest)

Chunnaic is in the list because there is one of those famous linguistic zeroes (= ø)in front of it. A linguistic zero is a marker for something that used-to-be-there/would-occupy-this-position-if-it-were-marked. In Old Irish, the past tense was quite regularly marked by sticking a particle in front of the verb (don't ask, it was messy). Curiously, one dialect of Irish still preserves this paradigm and that dialect also has a largely synthetic verb structure, meaning it uses endings as opposed to individual words to designate the subject pronouns:

Munster Irish Standard Irish Scottish Gaelic
do dhúnas
do dhúnais
do dhún sé/sí
do dhúnamair
do dhúnabhair
do dhúnadar
dhún mé
dhún tú
dhún sé/sí
dhún muid
dhún sibh
dhún siad
dhùn mi
dhùn thu
dhùn e/i
dhùn sinn
dhùn sibh
dhùn iad

That's why chunnaic is in the list. In Irish, the do then got reduced to d' before vowels and f (e.g. d'ith mé) and in Scottish Gaelic it became dh' (e.g. dh'ith mi). Anyway, it doesn't really matter if you ignore this particular one.

It certainly gets more complicated than that. But for now, it will do nicely to remember that Gaelic is a VSO language. Watch this space as there is lots more on syntax to come, including a lovely tree diagram even though we're definitely not generativists.

Beagan gràmair
Pronunciation - Phonetics - Phonology - Morphology - Tense - Syntax - Corpus - Registers - Dialects - History - Terms and abbreviations