Sunday, January 3, 2021

For an adjective, it is all about the place


[series of adjectives*]

According to the theory of universal grammar, attributed to Naom Chomsky, children are not born tabula rasa, empty headed, but instead with an innate sense of the structure of grammar. Otherwise, it is argued, children would be unable to learn their first language. One aspect of this inherited knowledge is the relationship between nouns and adjectives, specifically they are adjoined. The curious variation is their actual order depends on language and meaning but children have no difficulty grasping the specifics of the language of their surroundings.

[boy and girl]
In practice, many languages whose adjectives must reflect the gender and/or number of the noun begin with the noun. These languages include many of the romance and Semitic languages. It is simply much simpler to state the noun, note whether it is masculine or feminine, singular or plural, and then adjust the form of the adjective. For example, if I am talking about a bunch of female teenagers, the adjective form would be the feminine, plural form as in this Hebrew phrase בנות יפות [banot yafot], pretty girls, as compared to בנים יפים [banim yafim], handsome boys. Thus, some children learn to place the adjective after the noun.

[German shepherd]
By contrast, a few languages, notably English, do not require adjective/noun agreement since they lack a broad linguistic gender structure. Therefore, the most important word, the noun, is placed last with the any and all adjectives preceding it.  For example, a person may be scared of the big, brown, growling German Shepherd puppy. Any post-noun adjectives require either a relative pronoun (who, which or which) or a participle, the ing form of the verb. Back to the example, the person may be scared of the puppy that is looking at him or just looking at him. Therefore, children with English among others as their native tongue learn that the noun follows the adjective.

[Mayan vase]
Of course, hybrid systems are also quite common. In some cases, the adjective can be either before or after the noun, depending on the meaning and form. Some examples in French include un ancien ministre (a former minister) as compared to un vase ancien (an ancient vase) and ma chėre tante (my dear aunt) and une bague chėre (an expensive ring).  See this list. I imagine other languages also have situations where the meanings change depending on whether the adjective is before or after the noun.

[packed desk]
In at least one case, the actual form of the adjective may change based on its location as well as having a slightly different connotatoin. Russian has short and long forms for some but not all adjectives. The long form is used before the noun while the short term is used after the noun as if the verb to be, non-existent in the present tense in Russian, was there. Compare длинная очередь [dlinaya ochered] (a long line) with очередь длинна [ochered dlina] (the line (is) long). Furthermore, if a long form is used after the noun, it indicates a permanent status as compared to the short form. Compare Он очень занят [on ochen zanyat], meaning he is very busy right now, with Он очень занятый [on ochen zanyati] – meaning he is generally very busy. Learning Russian always reminds of the great Tom Lehrer line about new math: “it is so simple, so bloody simple, that only a child can do it”, or in this case, intuitively understand it.

There is Israeli joke about recognzing the speech of new immigrants in that they say  עברית היא קשה שפה [icrkit hi kasha safa], literally Hebrew is a difficult language, which places the noun and adjective in the wrong order. This comment reflects the variance in language structure as well as the fact children are far better at picking up languages than adults. To make minor changes to the song, in regard to adjective and noun placement, it is all about the place, about the place, no trouble, at least for children.

*Picture captions allow access to the blind. All pictures via pixabay.

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