1. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Adjective Order in English

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by BayView, Sep 3, 2016.

    I just read a cool tweet, apparently based on The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, pointing out that every native English speaker has somehow internalized the same order in which adjectives should be delivered. That is:

    opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun

    the big blue house, but not the blue big house. the wooden breakfast table, not the breakfast wooden table. the gorgeous red dress, not the red gorgeous dress.

    I can't think of a single exception to this rule, and what's even more interesting, I can't think of a single time I've heard a native speaker break this rule, although I don't think it's formally taught anywhere that I'm aware of.

    So, yeah, our brains are impressive that they can follow this classification system so quickly and instinctively, but it's also impressive/weird that this one rule is so ingrained when so many other grammatical conventions seem so hard for people to absorb.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Without doing any sort of actual research and relying only on what was learned at uni, yes, the brain's ability to process grammar and the subtle clues we have in the way certain kinds of languages function all point to there being an innate sense of language in the healthy human mind. It's part of our hardwiring.

    I think your question, though, as to why some things seem to stay firmly and rigidly in place, while other aspects of grammar meander through just plain wrong > idiomatic > accepted is a fascinating question. It mirrors a question I often have concerning biological evolution, to which language evolution is often compared. Like why vertebrates have highly variable kinds of skin (amphibious skin, scales, feathers, fur, glabrous skin) yet we have an unbreakable rule of never having more than five digits on the end of any appendage, a rule that got set pretty much at the point we came onto land, and from that point on it is a rule with draconian application. Or why mammals have only ever seven neck vertebrae when certain adaptations (like the neck of a giraffe) would clearly benefit from a few more. But nope. Seven. Heaven help you if you break that rule. But if you're a bird or a reptile, you can laugh all day at that rule. Many birds don't even have a stable number of neck vertebrae within members of the same species.

    I attended a lecture once at UF where the lecturer (can't remember her name) had an intriguing idea that the reason words for family members and pronouns are so doggedly stable in form compared to other nouns that change with any vowel or consonant shift a language cares to humor, is because these words are somehow related to the core of sounds we possessed as pre-linguistic primates. We know that primates makes sounds that have very specific meanings, but these sounds don't change over time. They are hardwired into the animal and don't have to be learned. She postulated that our words for mother and father, for sister and brother, etc. were somehow sourced or stored in the same primordial area of the brain that housed our simian cries for danger from the ground or danger from the sky, that we know many primates to have.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are those cats with extra toes - Hemingway's cats. But you're right, the general rule is definitely there. Interesting.

    Is there a connection between language and biological evolution in terms of the role of mutation? Like, current evolutionary theory (last time I checked, which wasn't all that recent) was saying that evolution sped up significantly because of mutations that became successful. Is there a connection to language mutations?

    Is there really a logical connection between the two uses of the word evolution? I mean, in biology it's survival of the fittest, more or less, but what's the driving force behind language evolution? Can we say that modern language is somehow more functional in its environment than older language would be?
     
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  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Linguistic change happens for many of the same reasons as biological evolution. Maybe reasons is the wrong word. Let's say stressors, instead. For both, mutation is the fodder. Isolationism, founders effect, and many other terms we use in biological evolution are also applied to language evolution. Isolationism is why Americans spell honor, valor, and labor, while Brits spell honour, valour, and labour. The truth of that little tale is that at the time of American colonization - and it's SO important to remember that the first English speaking Americans were ex-pat Brits - there was no set rule of use the u or don't use the u. After America and the UK went their separate ways, Americans opted more toward the no-U way, while the UK went through one of its love periods of its love-hate relationship with the French and they went the yes-U way, in deference to the French source of these words, so much so that the U was reverse engineered into a bunch of words that aren't of French origin, but looked enough like words that did and were Frenchified. Spelling these words with the U is no more "originally British" than not. It was quite variable at the time.

    Where I live here in Puerto Rico, the Spanish we speak is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for being wickedly shifted by founders effect. We have a ton of pronunciation quirks that are often thought of pejoratively as "sub-standard", but in fact have clear antecedents to the Spanish spoken in certain parts of Spain, whence hailed an inordinate part of the Spanish ancestry here in the Caribbean.

    Now, as to survival of the fittest....? I don't know if that's a thought process that can be applied to languages. As regards "more functional", I would say that modern language is as functional to modern life as older forms were to the slices of life in which they were used. We no longer recognize "class status" as something positive that should be recognized, hence the parts of our language were once used for that have either degraded into vestigial or just trace evidence. Other cultures still give this concept a level of obeisance that is reflected in their languages still having robust systems for denoting respect, reverence, status, etc.
     
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  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel like the lack of a driving force behind language evolution is what's tripping me up. Biological evolution makes creatures more likely to survive, but language evolution just seems to happen. Like, sure, there are factors that affect it, like the isolationism or whatever, but British English isn't any more or less suited to communication than American English is. Is it?

    I think there's also an element of linguistic eugenics we don't (generally) see in biological evolution. I guess it mostly happens on an individual level (people trying to change their accents/idioms, increase their vocabulary, etc.) but there are also larger-scale influences. The Academie francaise, the French language police in Quebec, even the grammar taught in schools--I can't think of a biological equivalent for those systems. Is there one?

    Speaking of French, as I recall the adjective order in French is different from the English adjective order listed in my OP. Which suggests that whatever the reason behind the order is, it's not something inherent to human brains...
     
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  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This is a very interesting point that I've never thought of before. Thanks for sharing.

    The one thing I will say is that this pattern is obvious when two or three adjectives are used, but when, for example, five adjectives are being used, the order of the adjectives towards the beginning of the phrase doesn't seem to matter much. For example:
    I could change it to
    and no one would care much.
    However, based on the hierarchy, "large" would now be an opinion and not a size. Does that matter much? :superthink:
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wonder if the commas play a role in it? It feels like they separate things out enough that the order stops mattering, at least to my ear/eye.

    But I'm not sure exactly what the comma rules are for strings of adjectives...
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yeah, it feels that way to me as well.
     
  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    No. They are equally apt. All languages are equally apt. It's one of the defining characteristics of a natural language.

    You're totally correct here. The academies don't have the power they would like us to think they have in those languages that have such institutions, but there is a factor that most languages engage today that slows change down profoundly: Mass Media. It has a way of putting heavy cement shoes on language change. The rate of change today for the more prosperous languages is a snail's pace compared to a century ago and further back. We have records of whole consonant shifts that worked heavy change on language pronunciation happening within a single person's lifetime in the past. That doesn't happen today.
     
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  10. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is a regular ELT issue, or TEFL, whatever new professionals call themselves 2016, hehe, hmm.
    ...
    I made a presentation on the subject, almost failed by TEFL leaders. I presented 'How we must destroy the convention, an adjective hegemony,' suggested all the 'fat, big, ugly, no, ugly pig, fat, smelly, ' I said. Then 'no,' I said 'Smelly, fat, big dog, hairy.'

    Everybody looked at me like I was very ill, scraped by on a D+, and no longer teaching.

    A regular TEFL rant
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
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  11. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    That last part is really interesting - in so many other ways change is coming so much faster, but in this one area it's been slowed down. And technology is the main cause of both changes in rate!
     
  12. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    For googling purposes, I believe the OP concept is usually referred to as the 'royal order of adjectives' :) but I'm here mostly to comment on the evolution discussion that's picked up, coming from the biology rather than the linguistics corner. Brace yourselves for one of my trademark TL;DR posts...

    Evolution is mutations becoming successful. Speeding up the mutation rate can speed up evolution, but more mutations are deleterious than beneficial (many are also 'silent'), so that's traded off against birth and death rates. 'Survival of the fittest' is true in context - when there's a population limit and some genetically coded trait has variations that are differently affected by a selection pressure - but plenty of the time that context isn't in place and a population can accumulate non-deleterious mutations --> diversity, until a selection pressure arises. And in the meantime, genetic drift, etc can occur: basically where chance (rather than 'purpose') gets rid of variants (Founder effects, bottlenecks, etc previously mentioned in the thread).

    I think there's a direct parallel between biology and language (or other types of cultural evolution). IMO you can say that modern language is more functional in its environment than older language, because modern language's environment is modern people! The selection pressure in place could be an entirely social one (e.g. you don't understand a cashier who asks for 5 smackeroonies, so he amends that to dollars in his future transactions); Darwinian evolution has parallels, e.g. sexual selection - a male peacock without gaudy plumage won't get far with the peahens because... well, ask a peahen. I wonder how many friendly wolves were killed by unfriendly humans before we finally figured the dog thing out.

    As always, the analogy gets shakier when you get into more detail. Biological mutations are changes to the DNA (there are various types), and they must have some influence on a phenotype (physical trait - physiologic, anatomic, behavioural) in order for selection to act. I suppose linguistic mutations would be things like loanwords and mispronunciations? And perhaps they have to influence intelligibility in order for selection to act?

    I think the reason <=5 digits is standard is because the basic body plan tetrapods have evolved from has five digits. Because evolution is not driven by purpose (sorry creationists), it can kill off something that exists to a species' detriment, but it can't just dream up something advantageous out of nowhere; it has to wait to see if it likes anything Mutation brings home. Selection works with what it has in the gene pool at present (not past, not future). Nevertheless, polydactyly happens in individuals (as BayView pointed out with Hemingway's cat), so it's not too draconian a rule. I think it usually arises as a developmental abnormality, where the genetic code is read (rather than written) against the standard, which means that it's not heritable --> no selection. If it were heritable, you'd expect a population to emerge in general accord with the birth rate. If it were advantageous, you'd expect the polydactyle proportion of the population to increase. The same applies to the vertebrae example: the genetic capacity for more has evolved in reptiles(/birds) after the point at which their gene pools diverged from mammals'. (Having said that, mammals can have variable numbers of thoracic, lumbar, caudal +/- sacral vertebrae, so perhaps it's likely that extra cervical vertebrae have arisen at some point, but for some reason have been selected against.)

    To summarise that, I think the important tenets of selection here are 1. Variant actually exists, 2. Variant offers a selective advantage, and 3. Variant is heritable. The parallel I'd draw to language: why are there no clicks in English? Xhosa is full of them. Why do some accents eschew/espouse rhoticity? Etc.

    I think survival of the fittest exists to an extent in language. Whatever the true etymology of 'okay' is, it's only contentiously known these days and, more importantly, unused. But this is probably an area where biological and linguistic evolution differ. In language, awareness of the language is life of the language, as one can make the choice to simply use the language. Not so with biology: we can make records of genetic/biologic data in other languages, but we can't (yet) transliterate them back into the language of life.

    With our modern ability to record language, is it effectively becoming immortal? I suppose the parallel there is in doomsday vaults, full of seeds and frozen embryos and such. You could tie 'life' to our ability to maintain samples, although you could just as easily write a frozen zoo (/any zoo?) off as dead (particularly if we long ago ran out of natural habitat to support the species).

    That's an IMO incorrect view of evolution. There is no 'driving force' to biological evolution, and I think you've reversed cause and effect: it's actually creatures being more likely to survive that makes for biological evolution :) If the selection pressure differs for the next generation, they're certainly not more likely to survive.

    As for BrE being more or less suited to communication than AmE: it's probably (overall) more suited to communication with Brits than Americans, just as some biologic traits are more suited to different environments than others. You could even consider BrE and AmE as two different populations (with distinct gene pools) that form an overall metapopulation with which they share memes. Xhosa would be a ~separate gene pool, as it shares very few memes with either form of English. I could also incorporate an analogy to 'outbreeding depression': where the specific features of BrE that make it effective amongst Brits make it ineffective amongst Americans - e.g. talking about 'football'.

    Having raised that, I'm not sure how inbreeding depression would work with language. Perhaps when a lexicon becomes so limited that the tools to express certain ideas are no longer present? Any other ideas?

    Biological eugenics is a huge part of life! If you rely on agriculture for food, you're benefitting from it. The biological equivalent you're after is artificial selection. For greater crop yield, pet breeds that fit some (IMO completely arbitrary) standard, screening pregnancies for hereditary diseases... there are so many examples (possibly even romance, when it leads to procreation). We alter the proportion of variants of a hereditary trait by helping/hindering positive/negative traits respectively. With genetic engineering, we're even starting to directly tamper with the code to do this in previously unheard of ways (pesticide-resistant crop species, mice that fluoresce like jellyfish, etc). Eugenics is basically just when the selection pressure is a being that has agency +/- can recognise itself as a selection pressure. I suppose this is the exception to what I was saying earlier about evolution not having a driving force (although until we learn to directly write the genetic code, we can still only work with what we have).

    Eugenics is a bit of a taboo word because of the atrocities done in its name in the past. But it's just a tool, and very much subject to 'rubbish in, rubbish out' when it's used in the wrong way (for the obvious example... how sadistic would you have to be to make a nocturnal species fluoresce? ;)).

    In summary: I wholeheartedly endorse the comparison of biologic to linguistic evolution. And now to address my bleeding fingertips :oops:
     
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  13. Seraph751
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    Seraph751 If I fell down the rabbit hole...

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    We are not straight to the point. The way our language is constructed attributes itself more on the journey of a conversation (descriptions/what is going on with the main point) rather than the point of said conversation.
     
  14. Malisky
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    Malisky Fuzz Overdriver Contributor

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    I'm not really sure if that's only an English language effect. I think that in most languages it works that way, but I'm not sure. (For example, Japanese or Korean are way too different syntactically to compare). Maybe it's because of "stables" vs. "variables". What I mean:

    1) big, blue house -> the house is blue for everyone, but to some it might be big, to others it might be normal, to others it might be small. Fact is, that blue can only be blue, so it's not just a house, it is a "blue house". The variable goes first, the stable follows. The stable must be the nearest to the object, in order to fuse with it.

    2) the wooden breakfast table -> the category of the table is "breakfast-table" when one searched to buy it in a shop, the texture could have been wooden, or metallic, or plastic. The texture is a variable, because it is a choice upon taste mostly. The fact is that it is a breakfast table, whether its wooden or not.

    3) the gorgeous, red dress -> red is fact, gorgeous is in the eye of the beholder, so you get what I mean.
     
  15. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    But it could equally well be a wooden table first and foremost, and whether you choose to eat breakfast on it, or dinner on it, is a matter of taste.

    And I can't say I've ever really heard of a dinner-table, let alone a lunch-table; I've heard of a dinner-plate, but not a breakfast-plate.
     
  16. Malisky
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    Malisky Fuzz Overdriver Contributor

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    But a breakfast-table is a table category. Wooden is not a table category. It is only a table texture. It could be the texture of anything. So, when one goes to buy his furniture, he will ask the seller to see the breakfast tables. Not the wooden ones. It is more relevant to what he is seeking. That's what I mean. The purpose, indeed comes first and then the visuals or whatevers. The other stuff about the table is its details. The purpose is the stable, the texture is the variable.
     
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  17. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    I struggle with this every year teaching EFL (as it seems Matwoolf does), but size can frequently come before opinion.

    Big, beautiful woman. (size, opinion, noun)

    Small, annoying child. (this one flips, but changes the emphasis).

    There are others that I can't think of off the top of my head, but trust me, like all English rules, there are plenty of exceptions.
     
  18. Malisky
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    Malisky Fuzz Overdriver Contributor

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    What sounds best?

    1) A warm, affectionate hug?
    2) An affectionate, warm hug?

    If "warm" is a metaphor for "heartfelt" then which sounds best?

    a) A heartfelt, affectionate hug?
    b) An affectionate, heartfelt hug?

    In case it is 1 & b, then sometimes it might be a spelling thing and not a definition order line. It sounds better I guess.
     

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