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of languages
SOV "She him loves." 45% 45
Sanskrit, Latin, Japanese, Ancient Greek, Korean, Hindi, PIE
SVO "She loves him." 42% 42
English, Hausa, Mandarin, Russian
VSO "Loves she him." 9% 9
Biblical Hebrew, Irish, Filipino, Tuareg
VOS "Loves him she." 3% 3
Malagasy, Baure
OVS "Him loves she." 1% 1
Apalaí, Hixkaryana
OSV "Him she loves." 0% Warao
Frequency distribution of word order in languages
surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in 1980s[1][2] ( )

In linguistic typology, a verb–subject–object (VSO) language is one in which the most typical sentences arrange their elements in that order, as in Ate Sam oranges (Sam ate oranges). VSO is the third-most common word order, after SVO (as in English and Mandarin) and SOV (as in Latin and Japanese).

Examples of languages with VSO word order include Semitic languages (including Arabic, Classical Hebrew, and Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic)), and Celtic languages (including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton), and many Mesoamerican languages.

Other families where all or many of the languages are VSO include the following:

Both the Spanish and Greek language resemble Semitic languages such as Arabic in allowing for both VSO and SVO structures: "Jesús vino el jueves"/Vino Jesús el jueves, "Tu madre dice que no vayas"/"dice tu madre que no vayas".


Formal Arabic is an example of a language that uses VSO. For example:

Sentence يقرأ المدرس الكتاب
Transliteration yaqraʼu l-mudarrisu l-kitāba
Gloss reads the teacher the book
Parts Verb Subject Object
Translation The teacher reads the book

^* Arabic is written right-to-left

Another Semitic language, Biblical Hebrew, uses VSO, as seen here, in Exodus 33:1 and many other places in the Tanakh.

Sentence ...וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה
Words * וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה
Romanization of Hebrew Vayidaber YHWH el-Moshe...
Gloss and-spoke YHWH to Moses
Parts verb subject object
Translation And YHWH spoke to Moses...

^* Words in Hebrew, as in Arabic, are written from right to left.


Word order is extremely flexible in Spanish and VSO word order is allowed in practically all situations, but it is particularly common where some element other than the subject functions as the subject of predication. Examples include:

  • Todos los días compra Juan el diario. Every day buys Juan the newspaper, “Juan buys the newspaper every day”
  • Ayer presentó María su renuncia. Yesterday handed-in Maria her resignation, Maria handed in her resignation yesterday.
  • A María le regaló su abuelo un caballo de pura raza. To María gave her grandfather a horse of pure breed, Her grandfather gave María a purebred horse.
  • Me devolvió María el libro que le presté. Returned María the book that to-her (I) lent, “María returned to me the book that I lent her.”
  • Se comieron los niños todo el pastel. ate the boys all the cake, “The boys ate up all the cake.”

Celtic languages

In Welsh, some tenses use simple verbs, which are found at the beginning of the sentence followed by the subject and any objects. An example of this is the preterite:

Sentence Siaradodd Aled y Gymraeg.
Words Siaradodd Aled y Gymraeg
Gloss spoke Aled DEF Welsh
Parts Verb Subject Object
Translation Aled spoke Welsh.

Other tenses may use compound verbs, where the conjugated form of, usually, bod (to be) precedes the subject and other verb-nouns come after the subject. Any objects then follow the final verb-noun. This is the usual method of forming the present tense:

Sentence Mae Aled yn siarad y Gymraeg.
Words Mae Aled yn siarad y Gymraeg
Gloss is Aled V-N.speak DEF Welsh
Parts Aux. Verb Subject Verb-Noun Object
Translation Aled speaks Welsh.

In Irish, phrases are also composed of VERB-SUBJECT-OBJECT.

Sentence Labhraíonn John Gaeilge.
Words Labhraíonn John Gaeilge
Gloss Speaks John Irish
Parts Verb Subject Object
Translation John speaks Irish.

In Irish, when forming a question the following would be true:

Sentence An labhraíonn tú Gaeilge?
Words An Labhraíonn Gaeilge
Gloss Do ...Speak You Irish
Parts Verb Subject Object
Translation Do you speak Irish?.

Inversion into VSO

There are many languages that switch from SVO (subject–verb–object) order to VSO order with different constructions, usually for emphasis. For example, sentences in English poetry can sometimes be found to have a VSO order, and Early Modern English explicitly reflects the VSO order that in modern English has been made implicit by the suppression of the imperative's (now merely understood) subject (for example, contrast "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" with modern "Gather rosebuds while you may").

Arabic sentences use an SVO order or a VSO order depending on whether the subject or the verb is more important. In Biblical Hebrew a sentence can be in SVO order if it is in past perfect tense, since Biblical Hebrew has no helper verbs. Also, Arabic sentences use a VOS order, the construction of the word changing depending on whether it is a subject or an object.

Non-VSO languages that use VSO word order in questions include English and many other Germanic languages, French, Finnish, Maká, Emilian, and Spanish (but not always).

The North Germanic languages invert word order to VSO in questions as well, (ex: Spiste du maten? - Ate you the food?) but there are also many circumstances, such as an expression preceding the subject and verb, and in subclauses (ex: I går leste (V) jeg (S) boka (O) - Yesterday read I the book) in which the order is also VSO in V2 word order.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Introducing English Linguistics International Student Edition by Charles F. Meyer
  2. Russell Tomlin, "Basic Word Order: Functional Principles", Croom Helm, London, 1986, page 22