Little did we know about this grammatical rule

In grammar, there are generally a number of typical patterns languages use to express the relationship between the subject, the object, and the action (or verb). This includes the nominative-accusative group, and the absolutive-ergative group. Within these groups, these elements can follow certain word orders with varying degrees of flexibility.

The word order we are rather familiar with is the subject-verb-object one, a pattern that appears rather common with languages like French. However, English seems to be an outlier when comparing word orders with most of its Germanic counterparts. For one, while English follows a subject-verb-object word order, languages like Swedish and German follow a verb-second word order, better known as the V2 word order.

Now hold on a moment. In both cases, the verb occupies the second element of a clause. So what is the difference here?

Consider a V2 language like German, and we want to write a sentence like “We learn German on Zoom today”. We get several options like:

As you can see, the verb “lernen” (learn) remains in the second element of the sentence here. Each expression is grammatical, but may differ in meaning based on the emphasis or stress on a certain element. For example, “Deutsch lernen wir heute auf Zoom” places emphasis that German is the language we are learning on Zoom today, while for “Auf Zoom lernen wir heute Deutsch”, it places emphasis that it is on the platform Zoom that we are learning German on today.

However, let’s try doing the same for a non-V2 language like, well, English. And you’ll find a whole bunch of rather ungrammatical sentences. For example, consider the sentence:

  • We play football after lunch.
  • *Football play we after lunch.
  • *After lunch play we football.

So it can be argued that V2 languages could technically allow a more flexible word order compared to English. Well, sort of.

Additionally, note that for embedded clauses, this V2 word order does not necessarily hold throughout all Germanic languages. While German, Dutch, and Afrikaans change to a verb-final word order after this element called a “complementiser” (something that changes a clause into a subject or object of a sentence), languages like Yiddish and Icelandic actually allow a V2 word order in all declarative clauses.

However, the lack of V2 word order in English does not mean that English was never one. Much like its Germanic cousins, English had a V2 word order, but only up until late Middle English. Today, we only see vestiges of such a word order in certain contexts, such as questions, direct quotations, and the fronting of certain types of words. These words that can trigger a V2 word order include prepositional phrases, locative or temporal adverbs, comparative adverb or adjectives, topic adverbs and adverbial phrases, and negative or restrictive adverbial phrases. Which kind do you think the title of this post falls under?

Interestingly, this V2 word order is not really exclusively characteristic of the Germanic languages. Remnants of such a word order can be found in languages like French (and its old counterpart) and Old Occitan. Curiously, Middle Welsh displays this V2 word order too, despite Old and Modern Welsh being verb-initial (particularly, verb-subject-object). More distant languages like Estonian only has some form of V2 word order when written, but less likely encountered when spoken.

This grammatical rule is not necessarily geographically restricted to Europe either. As far away as Arizona in the United States and Sonora in Mexico, the O’odham language exhibits a more flexible form of V2 word order in its clauses, although it gets rather stringent in the placement of the auxiliary verb.

This has been a short exploration into a grammatical rule some may have overlooked. Sometimes, the expressions we use today may hide vestiges of a past grammatical rule, etymologies or things of the sort. Yes, there are more technical explanations for such word orders in linguistics, most of them involving building clause trees and all, but to make such content more accessible to those curious, I hope this post has served such a purpose. Thank you all, and I will see you next Saturday.

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