The Weird World of Word Order—or—The Tip of the Iceberg


Our ragtag bunch of language enthusiasts and would-be linguists is rapidly approaching the 3 week mark of Anthrospin’s Hawaiian Language Revitalization Project.

We’ve all learned a decent amount of vocabulary and grammar. We can say some basic stuff. We know a little bit of the history of both the culture and the language. And we know the alphabet (or we’re at least a bit familiar with it even if we haven’t memorized it all just yet).

As of typing this, all of us live in the United States. I know we’re all native speakers of English.

And given all these things, I’m pretty confident we’ve all noticed something a bit…odd, about the Hawaiian language. Take a look at these three examples in three different languages.

My name is Joe.

Me llamo Joe.

Ich heiße Joe.

All of those sentences say the same thing. And despite the obvious differences in vocabulary, you can probably follow it.

And then there’s Hawaiian:

ʻO Joe koʻu inoa.

That means the same thing, but not even knowing the literal translation, something is clearly different in Hawaiian. That particular something is of particular interests to linguists, and it’s also partly what makes learning new languages difficult when you’re well into adulthood (meaning…everyone who’s a part of this project).

It’s something that’s particularly likely to be new to the majority of people who are a part of this project or who are readers from the United States if for no other reason than that the United States is a largely monolingual country.

Just 20% of people in the United States are able to converse in a second language. Which is extremely low, especially given that the United States has no official language. And especially given the incredible melting pot of cultures that the United States is (or claims to be?).

And given that worldwide, bilingualism is at about 50%…the United States really starts to feel lackluster. But you know how sometimes outliers can skew averages and drag down or artificially inflate a statistic?

Well, taking a look at Europe as a whole, approximately 56% of people can comfortable converse in a second language. Looking at Germany, that goes up to 67%. In fact, in Germany, multilingualism—that is, the ability to converse in three or more languages—is at 27%.

The United States of America is an outlier in it’s low, loooooooow bilingualism rates. It’s the 21st century…I feel like it’s sad that in such a globalized world, such a small amount of people in the United States are able to directly communicate with someone who doesn’t share their native world view.

This project will hopefully change that for at least a few of us.

But getting back to that really weird looking way of saying “My name is Joe” in Hawaiian.  That is an example of a difference in word order typology.

Typology studies the order of different aspects of syntax in a language and how different linguistic components are organized in different languages.

Translation—different languages have different word orders.

Looking broadly at the subjects, verbs, and objects within a sentence (and their modifiers but we’re not getting into that here), language typologies are broken down by the order in which those components appear.

English is a Subject/Verb/Object (SVO) language.

My name (subject) is (verb) Joe (object).

A little over 35% of the world’s languages are SVO languages. Spanish is “flexibly” SVO. German is goofy in that it’s SVO in main clauses and SOV in subordinate/dependent clauses. But for the purposes of the examples given, all clauses were SVO.

Over 40% of the languages in the world are SOV, which is kind of wild. That means that more languages exist that would present the statement as “My name Joe is” than would present it how we English speakers do.

And Hawaiian?

Native Hawaiian is a VSO language. Meaning the verb comes FIRST, then the subject, then the object. This is the next most common language typology, with a whopping 6.9% of language following this pattern worldwide.

But also…VSO doesn’t also quiiiiite equate to how we think of things in Hawaiian. There’s some flexibility in the word order and things can get kind of…goofy.

The sentence “ʻO Joe koʻu inoa” has the ‘O as a marker that announces a noun, in this case it’s a proper noun—Joe—and the object of the sentence. Ko’u is the verb and it pretty much expresses personal belonging. So “is my” or “belongs to me” is about the closest I can give you at this borderline fetal stage of my understanding of the language.

Inoa is name.

’O Joe (object) ko’u (verb) inoa (subject).

You can also fiddle with it, because that “ ‘O” marker can make things a bit more flexible:

’O ko’u inoa ‘o Joe means the same thing, but that marker allows the word order to be more flexible. In this example we’re more closely aligned with the VSO typology. The first example is simpler and is more likely to be what people actually say. It’s also more likely to be what you learn in an introductory course or an app like Duolingo.

Both are equally correct. If that seems weird…I can fiddle with it in English as well:

My name is Joe. Joe is my name. I am Joe.

Or German:

Ich heiße Joe. Joe ist meine Name. Ich bin Joe.

The flexibility in Hawaiian is no more extreme than in any other language. But our understanding of typology is dictated by that which we are familiar, and so Hawaiian seems a big departure from “normal,” when really it’s anything but a departure.

As we dig further into this language, we’ll better understand it’s flexibilities and idiosyncrasies. And, most importantly, we’ll understand a little bit more about how native Hawaiians view and understand the world around them.

Because it’s not just that the grammar is different, how we formulate our understanding of things is very much dictated by our language, and over the coming weeks I’ll begin to unpack and discuss some of the foundational thinking that lets linguistics and anthropology in general unlock the different perspectives of people from all over the world.

One thought on “The Weird World of Word Order—or—The Tip of the Iceberg

  1. Pingback: Let’s Get Down to Business!! – Pedal Powered Anthropology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s