In English, noun phrases are det-num-adj-n-rel (e.g. "The five orange balls that John saw"). In Spanish, noun phrases are (mostly) det-num-n-adj-rel (e.g. "Las cinco pelotas naranjas las que Juan vió," lit. "The five balls orange that John saw"). Is num-det-n-adj-rel a reasonable order (e.g. "Five these balls orange that John saw").

My determiners are prefixes on the noun, so I can't put numbers between determiners and nouns. Do I have to put numbers after the noun in this case to be naturalistic? My language is primarily head-initial (SVO default word order, adverbs come after verbs, etc.)

  • Take a look at youtube.com/watch?v=n7fX0Dbq_2I , especially at the 1 minute mark where they refer to Hawkins' Postpositional Universal (which I admit I don't fully understand yet). Is your language primarily head-initial, or head-final? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head-directionality_parameter
    – Octa9on
    May 13, 2020 at 18:18
  • 2
    My language is primarily head-initial. May 13, 2020 at 18:31
  • 1
    If your determiners are prefixes and quantifiers are separate words, that implies that the quantifier phrase would be outside the determiner/definiteness phrase. Ie, it implies a rather different scoping and semantic interpretation. That's something that should be explained/justified or at least thought about.
    – curiousdannii
    May 14, 2020 at 6:23

2 Answers 2


It is reasonable, but I'm having trouble finding unambiguous precedent for it in natural languages.

This handout shows the frequency of different orders of demonstratives, adjectives, nouns, and numerals in a sample of 528 languages. Demonstratives and determiners are not identical, but there is considerable overlap.

The order Num-Dem-N-Adj is not attested.

More broadly speaking, demonstratives seem to show a clear tendency to be closer to the edge of the noun phrase.

From the handout,

The adjective and numeral tend to occur closer to the noun than the demonstrative when the demonstrative and the adjective or numeral (or both) occur on the same side of the noun.

Furthermore, in cases where the demonstrative is to the left of the noun, there seems to be a very strong tendency for it to be the leftmost thing.

That being said, a demonstrative is a very heavyweight thing and not always a determiner. Without knowing what kinds of things are determiners in your language, it is hard to tell how much, if at all, the handout applies.

Here are approaches you might want to consider.

Put demonstratives at the right edge of the noun phrase and other determiners directly before the noun.

Demonstratives show a strong but not overwhelming tendency to appear on the opposite side of the noun as the adposition. I think that, in general, demonstratives are not the heads of the noun phrases they appear in cross-linguistically. Since you mention that your language is head-initial, I am assuming that it is prepositional.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that your inventory of determiner prefixes marks definiteness and number only.

DEF.PLUR-book red
The red books

DEF.PLUR-book red that
Those red books

5 DEF.PLUR-book red that
Those five red books

Repeat the determiner on the number

As far as I know, this is also unattested, but it does solve the problem of the determiner not appearing early enough in the noun/determiner phrase.

These five books

ANY-5 ANY-book
Any five books

Make numbers occupy the determiner slot

This works well if your set of determiners is small, but doesn't work very well if it contains demonstratives.

Some books

5 book
Some 5 books / the 5 books / 5 books

Make the determiner a clitic that attaches to first word in the noun phrase

This doesn't work if your language is fusional and it doesn't make sense to split the prefix from the base noun.

 DEF.PLUR book
 the books

 DEF.PLUR-5 book
 five books
  • Hmm, I think I'll go with the clitic or the repetition. I was actually using postpositions because I'd gotten it in my head that the noun was the head of an adpositional phrase, but Wikipedia says that's not the case. I guess I'll rethink that too. May 15, 2020 at 1:39

Reasonable: sure!

We do this in English, fronting the number for emphasis or for poetry. There's no reason why you couldn't do this as a matter of ordinary in your language.

Five the orange balls that Johnny saw flew through air and bounced to jackadaw.


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