Sunday, December 30, 2012

The SVO myth

There's a benefit to the world getting smaller, and our being able to know more information, have it at our fingertips, be more worldly, etc. And that is, people no longer pawn off assumptions based on parochial thinking, that don't stand up to the facts. At least they do this less, because they're more likely to be proven wrong, and they're more careful about their assertions, because it's so easy to check the great database and prove someone wrong. This is why I never make assertions.

Ah, but here's one I can't resist. It's all very tentative, because what do I know? That's why I put it in a blog, and not, say, in a published academic journal. But I've been around the block a few times, and I'm sharing the best of my observations here. Take them or leave them.

When I was in graduate school (80's), the concept of SVO languages came into my field of perception. English, they said, was an SVO language, and so was Chinese, but Korean was SOV, verb last. S=subject, V=verb, 0=object.

Now the assumptions behind this observation were not stated directly, but it could be inferred that S, V and O were the main building blocks of a language, and that all languages would have them. Sure, they'd also have genitive, and instrumental, and locative and all that other fine stuff. But at their base, they were the actor, the action, and the victim. He kicked the desk. In English, you could say, sometimes there was no object. But generally there was always a subject, except when it was understood, as in Kick the desk.

So I remember wondering: why would you separate the object from the verb? So I asked: is there any such thing as an OSV language? Or VSO? I was assured that there were such things but the proof wasn't immediately forthcoming. Someone at some point allowed that they weren't distributed evenly among the what, six possibilities?

But as it turns out, this view, that there are six different kinds, whether languages distribute evenly or not, is not very useful. I have found languages that don't really have subjects; instead, they have topics and they omit those whenever possible. So where we'd like to think of subject and predicate as the two basic placeholders, like Mom and Dad, of a sentence, the fact is, there are a lot of languages where even SOV, or (S)(O)V is a fairly inaccurate way of describing them, even though it may be true to the order. You end up saying that, for the vast majority of this language's sentences, they have a subject, but it's understood, they just give you the topic, and you figure out who did it. A sentence that can be translated literally as, "As for me, the desk-victim kick-past" forces you to interpret an actor, which is not really a problem if you get used to it, but makes it hard really to maintain that the actor is the big honcho of a sentence, one of two main characters. And a LOT of languages are like this.

So what to make of it? I've noticed that people use terms like "SOV" and "SVO" a lot less these days, and maybe it's just as well, rather than beat a dog that's down already, I'll just let it die a natural death and start talking about languages another way. But somehow, I've been unable to let it die peacefully in my mind. That's because I think it is representative of another problem: that we in the west are so quick to assume that the construction of every language we've ever learned (English, Spanish, maybe a tad of French or German) makes it necessary that all languages share these properties, that S V & O are building blocks of our language because they must be natural inherent big honchos in every sentence that's ever been made in any language. It's just one more case of a kind of western ethnocentrism, and ultimately isn't very helpful in classifying the worlds's languages.

So how should we classify them? I have no idea. Linguists use words like "agglutinative" vs. "non-agglutinative" but I fancy myself a linguist, and couldn't even explain what that is, let alone assure you that there is such a thing as that second one. One thing about S V O, is that at least we could explain what it meant...and that's why it stuck around linguistics books for so long. Not because evidence provided any support for classifying languages in that way.

One final irony: you'd think that, sharing an SVO structure would make a language essentially easier to learn. Thus, Chinese would be easier (for us) to learn than, say, Korean. I'm not sure that's true. The Chinese have that SVO order, all right, but everything else is so different, including the function of grammar within the language, that Chinese I think is one of the hardest languages for us to learn. It's one thing to say, I don't think a language is going to change its basic order very easily; in other words, if our languages are SVO today, they'll probably be SVO tomorrow. An order, or a way of constructing sentences, does in some kind of way seem to be a fundamental characteristic of a language. But, though we and the Chinese both construct our sentences with subject first (and they presumably have subjects, unlike Korean), Chinese learners are famously stumped by English grammar. It brings up the question of whether patterns that are similar to yours, but way different in some ways, are actually harder to learn, than patterns that are just way different from the very start. There's an argument to be had, in there, somewhere.

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