Is German an SVO language?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The order of the subject, verb, and object in a sentence (abbreviated S, V, and O, respectively) is one of the ways linguists categorize languages. For example, English is an SVO language because we would say:

PeterS seesV the houseO

However, when we ask a question, the order is different (and would have to be classified separately):

DoesV (aux) PeterS seeV the houseO?

That’s why the order of S, V, and O is defined as the order used in the main clause in declarative sentences in which no constituent is emphasized, as in the first example above.

Based on these very specific criteria, German is an SVO language. The first example can be translated as:

PeterS siehtV das HausO.

German is a V2 language

When more words are introduced into a German sentence, they can change the word order significantly. For example “Peter sees the house now” would be (“A” means “adverb” here):

JetztA siehtV PeterS das HausO.

In general, adverbs can be placed at the beginning of a sentence, followed by the verb and the subject.

The object can also precede the verb when it is emphasized, but this is usually avoided when the object is not determined by the form of the words used:

Das HausO siehtV PeterS. (confusing)
Das HausO siehtV erS. (correct)

Notice that in the latter example, it is clear that “er” is the subject, not “das Haus”, because otherwise the correct form would be “das Haus sieht ihn”.

Due to the strong tendency of the verb to come second in German indicative sentences, no matter where the subject and the object is, linguists usually call German a verb-second language, or V2 language.

A somewhat more flexible notation for V2 would be ∗V (which I just made up), meaning “one word followed by the verb”. We’ll see why it is useful below.

Is this classification sufficient?

I feel that the categorization of German as a V2 language still does not really tell the whole story, most importantly because the basic order is SOV in subordinate clauses (denoting an expression introducing a subordinate clause by “–”):

Ich glaube, dass PeterS das HausO siehtV.
I believe that PeterS seesV the houseO.

Based on that, we could say that German is a –SOV language, whereas English is a –SVO language.

In sentences containing an auxiliary verb (let’s denote the auxiliary verb “V” and the main verb “v”), the word order follows the pattern SVOv:

PeterS hatV das HausO gesehenv.

However, the V2 property strikes again, and it is possible to put another word first followed by the verb:

Das HausO hatV erS gesehenV.
GesternA hatV erS das HausO gesehenV.

All in all, the word order in indicative sentences could be abbreviated as ∗VSOv (that is, anything followed by a verb, then the subject and object (unless already mentioned), and then the main verb, if any). It would be better to say that the word order of German is:

∗VSOv, –SOvV

This is a much better characterization than the usual SVO or V2 and distinguishes it more clearly from other languages, such as Dutch, which is ∗VSOv, –SOVv, or Swedish, which is ∗VSvO, –SVvO.

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