Native American Indian languages * Native art * Native Americans for kids

  * Find Native American ancestors in your family tree

Free Word Order

The occasional "Sam I am" or "Quoth the raven" aside, English uses the same word order for nearly every sentence: the subject comes first, then the verb, and finally the object. If someone says "The dog bit John," you can be sure that the one who has been bitten is John, not the dog.

Sponsored Links

In other languages, word order is much more flexible. In Spanish, for example, you can say "El perro mordió a Juan," "Mordió el perro a Juan," or "A Juan mordió el perro," and regardless of the word order, it is still clear from the grammar of the sentence that Juan is the injured party. Spanish is still generally considered an SVO language, because the SVO word order (subject-verb-object, the same one used in English) is used the majority of the time. But in other languages, such as Latin, the word order was so variable that no one sentence structure can be said to be dominant.

Usually free word order occurs in one of two situations: either the language has enough grammatical markers to eliminate any ambiguity in meaning (as in the case of Latin, which has noun declensions and verb conjugations on every word,) or the language has easily identifiable verbs and fluctuates between only two compatible word orders (for example, SOV and SVO; the subject always comes first, so there is no confusing it with the object.)

We don't know of any Native American languages that have truly free word order the way Latin does, but there are several of them that use two or three different word orders freely. Here is a partial list of such languages:

Abenaki (SOV/SVO)
Arapaho (SOV/SVO)
Atikamekw (SOV/SVO)
Alsea (VOS/VSO)
Cayuga (SVO/SOV/VSO)
Cree (SOV/SVO)
Karok (SVO/SOV)
Mohawk (SVO/SOV/VSO)
Nahuatl (VSO/SVO)
Oneida (SVO/SOV/VSO)
Onondaga (SVO/SOV/VSO)
Seneca (SVO/SOV/VSO)
Shuswap (VOS/VSO)
Tohono O'odham (VSO/SOV)

Further Reading

 Word Order Typology
 Wikipedia: Word order
 Basic Language Structures

Back to our Native American definitions

Would you like to help support our organization's work with endangered American Indian languages?

Native Languages of the Americas website © 1998-2015 * Contacts and FAQ page