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Along the lines of How do languages which have adjectives after the noun work with complex phrases? (my last question), I am wondering now more about compound English words and how to break these apart and somehow "reverse" the order of things (though not necessarily reverse, because I'm not 100% clear yet on what I want totally, still unclear to me so far).

Basically I am thinking of phrases like this:

  • carefully planned meeting
  • crazy beautiful
  • insanely tricky puzzle

If I try and straight ahead "reverse" these, I first have to break them down into more atomic units. So first, before reversing, I do:

  • care full [like] plan [past] meet [flow]
  • crazy beauty full
  • insane [like] trick [like] puzzle

Not perfect, but seems close enough. Then I try and go about reversing it (to make the adjectives trail after the head noun or element):

  • flow meet past plan like full care
  • full beauty crazy
  • puzzle like trick like insane

It would be perceived sort of like this:

  • [flow meet] [past plan] [like full care]
  • [full beauty] crazy
  • puzzle [like trick] [like insane]

To me, this doesn't make any sense, and feels really hard to grok. Is it just because it is unnatural to me? Or do languages do it like this? Or am I doing it wrong and real or constructed languages do it differently when they do the "adjectives last" approach? How exactly do they do it when these words like "beauty-full" are compound words which need to be split up, and somehow also rotated in the phrase?

How do you know what should feel natural? Meta-question, can I train myself to feel new ways of doing things are natural? The english way, where we have nested structures chained together like [[a, b, c], [d, e, f]] just "feels right" for some reason, and I'm not sure it's purely based on my upbringing.

Another simpler example to demonstrate the point is, -ed past tense. A word like "walked". Does it become [past] walk or walk [past]? Which part of English should be reversed and which shouldn't basically? I have been thinking about it in terms of a URL structure, how would I do that. Would it be one of these?

  • /past/walk, where it's first scoping you down to an abstract past, then to a more specific action (general -> specific)
  • /walk/past, where it's filtering the walk to a more specific walk, but really going specific -> general in terms of terminology.

I can't tell which one would be more appropriate, if the goal is to make a hierarchy of sort of "filtering" like this (a website even).

https://yourvietnamese.com/learn-vietnamese/vietnamese-adjectives/

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    The answer to your meta-question is to learn another language. Taking even a semester or two of classes in any non-English language (or better yet, a non-Indo-European one) will help you conceptualize different ways that grammar can work.
    – Draconis
    Feb 15, 2023 at 4:03
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    I wonder if it ever occurred to you that in other languages words like “beautiful” or “tricky” can consist of just one morpheme (cf. their English one-morpheme synonyms “nice” and “sly”) and that reversing the order of the attributes doesn't necessarily mean reversing the order of all the morphemes in the attributes? Just check the grammar of Swahili in which adjectives together with numerals, as well as possessive and demonstrative pronouns follow the noun and in which most of the grammatic features are expressed by prefixes, not by suffixes as in English.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 15, 2023 at 11:51
  • What is an "atomic" language?
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 15, 2023 at 21:56
  • Sorry I probably meant analytic, "atomic" means everything is an atom, a word in this case.
    – Lance
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:44

1 Answer 1

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Meta-question, can I train myself to feel new ways of doing things are natural? The english way, where we have nested structures chained together like [[a, b, c], [d, e, f]] just "feels right" for some reason, and I'm not sure it's purely based on my upbringing.

First and foremost, the answer to this is to learn another language. The best (really, the only) way to get used to non-English ways of structuring language is to see how other languages do it differently. Ideally, take classes from a native-speaking instructor for a semester or two (it'll be a lot easier and faster to absorb than Duolingo or the like). If you're looking for something distinctly non-English, Mandarin and Japanese are popular enough that you can find classes for them everywhere.

There's been an unfortunate tendency in linguistics since its earliest days to assume that the way English structures things is "logical" or "natural" and the way other languages do things is "strange" and "unnatural", which is absolutely not the case. If you grew up speaking Japanese instead, Japanese sentence structure would "feel right" and English would not. The field of linguistics as a whole is still in the process of recovering from this assumption.

To me, this doesn't make any sense, and feels really hard to grok. Is it just because it is unnatural to me? Or do languages do it like this? Or am I doing it wrong and real or constructed languages do it differently when they do the "adjectives last" approach? How exactly do they do it when these words like "beauty-full" are compound words which need to be split up, and somehow also rotated in the phrase?

Even staying entirely within the bounds of English, we sometimes do structure our compounds this way, thanks to all the syntax we borrowed from French. In English you can say either "beautiful" or "full of beauty"; "prettier" or "more pretty"; etc.

So instead of "extremely beautiful", we can say "full of beauty to an extreme". Instead of "careful movement" you can say "act of moving with care". The fact that the "after" forms of modifiers require prepositions is just a quirk of English grammar; other languages use this structure by default, and don't need any extra words to mark it.

Another simpler example to demonstrate the point is, -ed past tense. A word like "walked". Does it become [past] walk or walk [past]? Which part of English should be reversed and which shouldn't basically?

English puts the past-tense marking after ("walked"), but future-tense marking before ("will walk").

Ancient Greek does the opposite, with past-tense marking before (the augment) and future-tense marking after (the sigmatic future).

Latin puts all the tense marking at the end.

Swahili puts all of it at the beginning.

Lingála puts it on both ends, what linguists call a "circumfix".

Akkadian puts it in the middle of the word, changing out the vowels while keeping the consonants the same (an "infix"). English sometimes does this too: run vs ran.

Mandarin generally doesn't mark tense at all. It's a quirk of English that tense marking is required on every verb; many other languages don't require this (but may require something else: Turkish requires you to mark how you know the information).

Every permutation of this exists somewhere in the world. I really do recommend studying another language to a basic level to get a sense of what's possible.

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    I second that. Just go on Duolingo and start Hawai'ian, for example. That is fairly easy (Latin alphabet) and gives you a good idea how other languages work. Feb 17, 2023 at 9:17
  • "There's been an unfortunate tendency in linguistics since its earliest days to assume that the way English structures things is "logical" or "natural" and the way other languages do things is "strange" and "unnatural"" - wait, what? I genuinely don't understand how people can do a serious linguistic study of multiple world languages without coming away with the impression that English is a nonsensical mess. And I say that as a native English speaker! Jul 13, 2023 at 3:44
  • @KarlKnechtel There's also the unfortunate tendency of early linguists to extrapolate from English and maybe French to the entire world, without looking at any other ways of doing things. Look at works like the famous Metaphors We Live By and you'll find claims that are trivially disproven if you ever look outside Standard Average European…which the authors unfortunately didn't. (Such as the claim that "with" for accompaniment and "with" for instrument are identical in every language, disproven by languages as exotic as Russian and Latin.)
    – Draconis
    Jul 13, 2023 at 4:22

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