Sunday, August 1, 2021

Real Language Details: Word Order operations in Swedish

As usual, my real life language example will come from Swedish (a habit I really need to break). This time, we're looking at word order in main clauses. First, Swedish is in many ways similar to English, but differs on a few important points:

  • thou/you-distinction, and case distinction on both. I will use thou/thee and you/ye for nom/acc in my English examples.
  • In spoken Swedish, 'de' (they) and 'dem' (them) have - in most regiolects - been conflated to 'dom', which I will write 'thom'.

Swedish is V2, unlike English, which means that almost always, there'll be one constituent left of the finite verb, and the rest will go to the right. Exceptions include a handful of adverbs that can go between the subject and the verb, and questions, which have a fairly strict VSO order.

Basically, some linguists describe the Swedish word order in main clauses as follows:

[fundament] V S * iO * dO *

The asterisks represent adverbs, whose rules are not all that interesting with regards to this point (but may be dealt with later). If the fundament remains empty, it is a question, but if any thing from the right of the verb is moved to the fundament, you get a statement. Adverbs can be moved, subjects, objects, indirect objects, etc. If it's a prepositional phrase that is moved, the preposition can be stranded at the end of the clause.

Now to some exceptions. For conservative speakers, objects that are personal pronouns can further be shifted leftwards to the slot directly right of the verb, displacing the subject:

then saw thee a friend

It seems there are some restrictions:

  • a heavy subject is more likely to move right, or a subject that has some "association" rightwards - i.e. coordination with something in the next clause
  • a pronominal subject cannot be displaced
  • a definite, non-heavy subject  seems unwilling to be displaced

Now we're getting to an interesting bit, were there's two groups of conservative speakers, and the less conservative group is shitting on the more conservative group for being sloppy.

The they-them distinction, as mention, is weakened in the spoken language, such that 'thom' has replaced both. Thus, 

thom see me
I see thom

are both permissible in most speakers' eyes and ears. This causes a complication where speakers who are unsure of the written form tend to err on the side of using 'them', giving results such as

them see me
I see them

This annoys a fairly large contingent of conservative speakers - even those conservative speakers who themselves have 'thom' in the spoken form but who have good intuitions for when which form is used.

Some conservative speakers seem to instinctively correct every 'them' that is in even a slightly unusual position to 'they'. Thus,

then answered them a voice over the speaker

will be hypercorrected by them to

then answered they a voice over the speaker

even in contexts where this makes no sense. There seems to be four kinds of readers with regards to this:

  1. Some readers do not react at all that anything is wrong, and will read 'them' as the subject.
  2. Some readers react that something is wrong, and will read 'them' as the subject, and would correct it to 'they'. These will consider the sentence sloppily written and a sign of the modern degradation of the language.
  3. Some readers react that the word order is wrong, but read 'them' as the object. These will consider the sentence sloppily written and a sign of the modern degradation of the language.
  4. Some readers do not react at all that anything is wrong, and will read 'them' as the object. If they are keenly aware of Swedish linguistic developments over the last 100 years or so, they will see this as somewhat conservative.

Of course, group #4 and #3 will be aware that some writers do not distinguish they/them, and if the context has several they/them-errors, they will join #2 temporarily.

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