I'm currently working on a VSO language and syntax is the next big step to tackle. However, I find it quite hard to find ressources on VSO languages and thought I could glean some informations quickly and easily here. So the questions are :

  1. What are their main specificities ?
  2. How close to SVO languages are they ?
  3. Which features do they have in common ?

I've already found the following infos :

Strong tendencies

  • Adjective comes before standard of comparison

  • Verb comes before adpositional phrase

  • Adpositions come before the noun phrase (i.e. they are prepositions)

  • Verb comes before manner adverb

  • Copula comes before nominal or adjectival predicate

  • Auxiliary comes before verb (for those languages that have auxiliaries)

  • Negative auxiliary comes before verb (for those languages that have negative auxiliaries)

  • Complementizer comes before sentence

  • Adverbial subordinator comes before sentence

Weak tendencies

  • Head noun comes before genitive noun

  • Question particle comes before sentence (in those languages that have question particles)

  • Article comes before noun (in those languages that have articles)

I think what I'm mostly looking for is a general scheme of VSO syntax to understand its core and iterate around it. For example, how are conjunctions and prepositions generally handled ? Things like that.

I've read the following books on the subject of conlanging :

  • The Language Construction Kit
  • Advanced Language Construction
  • The Syntax Construction Kit
  • The Conlanger’s Lexipedia
  • The Art of Language Invention

However, my understanding of syntax is really basic, that's the part I've the most difficulties with.

  • 2
    If I say "VSO languages tend to be overall head-initial", is that meaningful to you?
    – Draconis
    Jun 29, 2023 at 14:11
  • If I remember well it means that Verbal clauses tend to start with the verb, Nominal clauses tend to start with the Noun etc ... Jun 29, 2023 at 15:33

1 Answer 1


As far as universals are concerned, VSO languages are generally "head-initial", just like SVO ones. In fact, it's common for languages to be categorized into "VO" versus "OV", without mentioning the subject, because whether the object comes before or after the verb is more telling than where the subject goes! That's where most of the tendencies you mention come in.

According to most types of generative syntax (the sort you've probably done if you've drawn any syntax trees), VSO languages are actually "underlyingly" SVO, and then the V moves to a special "tense" or "inflection" node before the subject. But there's only one of these nodes, which means if you have an auxiliary verb, you end up with the order Aux-S-V-O. It's sort of like how in English, when you turn a sentence into a question, only one auxiliary moves: "you have been doing well" → "have you been doing well", not *"have been you doing well". There's only one slot available for the movement, so only one auxiliary gets to move, and the rest have to stay in their original places.

Finally, just remember that all of these are tendencies rather than absolute rules! VO languages tend to put nouns before adjectives, but just look at English. So if these tendencies conflict with the aesthetic you want for your language, feel free to ignore them! They're inspiration, not a restriction.

  • Thanks for your reply ! Really clear, in-depth and concise. Jun 30, 2023 at 22:16
  • @PouillaudeAlexis If you found the answer useful, remember you can vote it up with the arrows on the left, and "accept" it with the green checkmark!
    – Draconis
    Jul 1, 2023 at 0:10

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