Order! Order!

Why do we like things in a specific order? Well, sometimes anyway. I would never think of saying chips and fish, for instance, but I’m not sure about bacon and eggs vs. eggs and bacon.

The order of adjectives is an interesting matter. Big, red book is fine, but red, big book certainly isn’t. However, once one gets more than about three in a string of adjectives, my intuitions at least get a little uncertain. How about big, black, shiny, American car vs. big, shiny, black, American car?

The Little Red Book
The Little Red Book

I am now going to step out onto very thin ice and consider adjective order in languages where the adjectives regularly follow the noun. I have almost no intuitions about this, but I do have a bit of evidence for two languages. Here we go with Irish. Irish for “beautiful, young girl” is cailín deas óg, literally “girl beautiful young”, with the adjectives in the same order as in English. Another example comes from Hebrew, and is supplied by my neighbour, who is a fluent Hebrew speaker. Modern Hebrew for “big, red book” is [sefer gadol adom], literally book big red. Again the order is the same as in English.

I would welcome any comments about languages of this sort, especially if they seem to be different from English in their order hierarchy.

There is a putative hierarchy for English online at this address. I’m still pondering that to see if I can find any good counter-examples.

4 thoughts on “Order! Order!

  1. David Crystal addressed this (for English) in his book “Linguistics” (Pelican, 1971). Half way through the book is what he calls an “Interlude”, pp128-141, which discusses adjective order at some length.

    Grevisse’s ‘Le Bon Usage’ (9th edition, 1969), has 57 pages on the rules for indicating number and gender in the French adjective, but its only comments on position refer to whether an adjective should precede or follow its noun. I’ve heard it said that the rule is that shorter adjectives come before longer ones, but have no evidence that this is anything other than personal preference. The longest examples that Grevisse gives are from ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’: “Une vieille petite malle longue et basse” and Vigny (‘Stello’): “cette jolie petite longue phrase”, which seem to contradict each other.

  2. Thanks for that, Graham.

    I sort of tiptoed round French and Italian because of the problems of preceding and following adjectives. I also didn’t want to deal with adjectives linked by conjunctions because I have a hunch that all bets are off for these. In English, both of these sound all right to me:

    – He lived in a house, old and enormous, ….
    – He lived in a house, enormous and old, …

    but I would have to have:

    He lived in an enormous, old house….

    at least I think I would. Hmmmm.

  3. For Welsh, Peter Wyn Thomas’s ‘Gramadeg y Gymraeg’ gives order for both the usual postposed adjectives, and the rarer preposed ones (pages 317-319).
    For postposed he lists: head noun; denominal, gradable, size, colour, origin, -able type, age, quality, and “other” (i.e. the word arall = “other”).

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