Freak Out with my Geek Out

I’m going to seriously nerd it up today, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, namely why our language is constructed the way it is.

Still with me? Huzzah! Okay, so I’ve been teaching myself Irish Gaelic for the past few months, and one of the most striking things about this language is that the verb always comes before the subject. So for example, in English, we would say, “The dog ran home.” In Irish Gaelic, the literal translation would be “Ran the dog home.” The English word order is known in linguistics as Subject-Verb-Object (abbreviated SVO); the Irish word order is know as Verb-Subject-Object (abbreviated VSO).

And because I’m not content to just know about the difference in sentence construction, I went about some research to figure out why some languages are constructed SVO and some VSO. In English, the focus is on the subject of the sentence. In other words, the subject (who performs the action) seems to be key (and dare we say most important?). In Irish, the focus seems to be instead on the verb of the sentence. In other words, the verb (the action being performed) seems to be key (and dare we say most important?).

Now before I go all-out geek, I’ll rein myself in to say first, which word order predominates in other world languages, and second, what I think these differences in construction mean.

First, there’s a good bit of linguistic research on all this, but the consensus seems to be that all humans had a common language once upon a long-ass time ago, and the word order of sentences in that language was most likely SOV. Example: “The boy the bear shot” is SOV, as opposed to “Shot the boy the bear” (VSO) or “The boy shot the bear” (SVO). Then eventually, people split off from each other and language evolved, and some languages kept the SOV word order, while some morphed into SVO, others into VSO, and even other constructions which aren’t terribly relevant to this post.

So many years passed and BAM! we have around 6500 languages in the world today. The SVO constructed languages have the most speakers in the world (examples: English, French, Mandarin Chinese, crazy lots of others). The second most common is SOV, and the third most common is VSO. Examples of VSO languages include the Celtic languages like Irish, as well as Classical/Biblical Hebrew and Arabic.

So why do some languages seem most concerned with the action being performed, and some with the person or thing performing that action? Full disclosure: The following conclusions are neither scientific nor scholarly, just some semi-educated guesses by someone who hasn’t fully done all her research yet:

Maybe- just maybe- some societies historically have been more concerned with something being done than with who does it.

Now in light of the recent “Blurred Lines” controversy, I think it’s safe to say that American society today seems inordinately preoccupied with who has done something. Sure, we all want credit when we’re brilliant (I’m no exception myself), but what’s ultimately going to last? Our names and the details of our lives, or our works and the feelings they inspire?

How many people still know anything about Michelangelo (other than that he was a famous artist)? How many people know who wrote the Beowulf epic (hint: no one)? But how many people have seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel since its creation and been inspired, or felt awe, or felt somehow profoundly connected to someone or something greater? And how can we ever fully measure the tremendous impact that Beowulf had on countless subsequent poems, epics, novels, plays, films, etc?

Learning Irish Gaelic has made me think about all this and wonder what our society would be like if English word order was VSO, focused on the verb of each sentence rather than the subject. In what ways might it change our culture, or would it even change at all? Perhaps the glorification of the individual was always inevitable in our society, and not something rooted in our very language. Then again, perhaps not.


4 thoughts on “Freak Out with my Geek Out

  1. Interesting speculation. And perhaps the SVO languages are widespread because the focus on ME doing stuff encourages individualism and dynamic (sometimes ruthless) leadership, whereas the VSO construction encourages a more collective ethos. But how would we research that?

    • I think that’s a totally valid assumption; the “me” focus of languages has a lot of benefits, like the individualism you mentioned, just as a VSO typology has a lot of communal benefits, but I wonder what it is about a culture/language that causes this shift from subject-focused to verb-focused. Based on my research so far, it looks like there’s a lot of information on how languages have shifted and evolved over time, but little speculation as to why. I suppose the best way to research it (aside from delving deep into some linguistics) is to research the culture of a particular society at each phase of their language’s typology, and see how changes in the culture might correspond to changes in the language… That’d be my guess anyway. Any ideas?

      • Yes. The challenge of course is that all this happened a very long time ago, so we can’t exactly have a Gallup poll… But it might be interesting, even today, to find out if there is a correlation between social attitudes and language structure (oh – that sounds a lot like sociolinguistics 🙂 )

  2. Having immersed myself over the past few days in a world of reading about regionalization, diglossia, and vernacularization, I see that it’s going to take me a while to come up with a valid hypothesis! Progress to come…

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