Monday, May 15, 2006

Russian word order

Russian is a highly inflected language. You can pick a verb at random, pull it out of its logical context, and still know its person, tense and aspect. The same goes for nouns and number, gender or case. (Oddly, a lot of the case endings overlap, such that if you know the gender, you can be pretty sure of the case and if you know the case, you can be pretty sure of the gender, but if you don't know either, then you're left with more than one possibility. But I digress.)

As is often the case in highly inflected languages, the word order is very flexible because you don't have to rely on word order to indicate sentence structure. (Chinese is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with virtually no word inflection and a very strict word order.) You'd think that a flexible word order would make Russian really easy -- anything goes, right?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. In practice, a highly flexible word order means that there are multiple ways of communicating the same syntactic structure, but each variation tends to carry its own semantic nuance. (Of course, a native speaker would probably still understand a non-native speaker who used the "wrong" word order.)

The basic rule for Russian word order is: old information first, new information second. The two sentences "the vase is on the table" and "on the table is the vase" are structurally the same. However, in Russian, the first sentence implies that the fact that it's on the table is the unexpected bit of information. (Perhaps this is a response to "Where is the vase?") The second implies that the existence of the vase itself is the new information (perhaps as a response to "What is on the table?").

So "здесь" might come first or last in a sentence, depending on the context. As a response to a question starting with "где," you would expect it to come last. Otherwise, I think it would often come first, since the existence of "here" isn't generally new information.

I'll get back to you on your other questions.


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