word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Mon Apr 4 04:40:11 EDT 2005

 I gave up on trying to translate 'Intricate old grey interlocking Gothic
church moral responsibilities' into Hebrew  because I can't tell what's
modifying what. Are the responsibilities interlocking? Or grey? Or is it the
church that is grey? Or interlocking? I can't translate a phrase that I
can't properly parse. As for "little old man", in Hebrew the noun would come
first, and it would be better style to add an "and" between both adjectives,
so: "man little and old". "Man old and little" sounds just very slightly
less natural. Adjectives don't string as nicely in Hebrew as they do in
English, I would probably break up a long string of adjectives with phrases
like "of the", "the color of", "pertaining to" etc. just for clarity's sake.
Still, "House old and blue" sounds better than "house blue and old", "puzzle
complicated and big" sounds slightly better than "puzzle big and
complicated"... in short, there probably is a natural order in Hebrew as
well, and it may be just about backwards from the English order, but this
apple's head is begining to ache from thinking too much about how to fall.


-----Original Message-----
From: owner-dwj at suberic.net [mailto:owner-dwj at suberic.net]On Behalf Of
Charles Butler
Sent: Monday, April 04, 2005 1:33 AM
To: dwj at suberic.net
Subject: Re: word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

Back from one brief break and about to go on another (life is hard) I've
been quickly reading the languagy emails of the last few days with a
suitable degree of awe at the linguistic expertise of this list. The
discussion of the order of adjectives in particular had me turning to my
trusty old Quirk and Greenbaum *University Grammar of English*, which
suggests the following order of adjectival categories: general, age, colour,
participle, provenance, noun, denominal, head. As in (to select from their
examples) 'Intricate old grey interlocking Gothic church moral
responsibilities,' which I'm sure we'll agree is very good English indeed.

Anyway, I have a couple of queries arising from all this.

Apples fall on bewigged heads quite happily without being aware of the
inverse-square law. They conform to it, rather than obey it by volition -
quite different from a driver slowing down to keep within a speed limit,
say, which involves an act of will, or at any rate a state of consciousness.
Does this distinction constitute any kind of useful analogy to the
difference between rules of language that native speakers have to learn in
school, and those they follow as unthinkingly as plummeting apples?

Then again: have I infringed a rule of English if I write 'The old little
man entered the brown big house?' It feels 'unnatural', but if it's wrong it
seems to be wrong in a different way from a sentence like 'Mat on the cat
sat the.' Is it that in English, at least, rules involving a semantic
element are more gainsayable than ones based on syntax alone?


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