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I have noticed that in English we put the colour before the object.

For instance we, would say White House but in Spanish it would be Casa Blanca (House White) or in French they would say for instance Mont Blanc (Mountain White) or eau rouge (water red) and not the way we do it with the colour first. Same in Italian, as they would say Torro Rosso instead of what it is in English which is Red Bull.

So how come English doesn't do it the way French, Spanish, and Italian do with the object before the colour? Why does English do colour first then the object?

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    Someone somewhere in Italy is wondering why English and German and Chinese put colors before the object. – Mitch Sep 14 '17 at 20:13
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    For example in Georgian and in Russian as well color comes first. – George Garchagudashvili Sep 14 '17 at 20:27
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    English is less romantic? – BruceWayne Sep 15 '17 at 1:27
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    It can be quite a bit more nuanced than that. Although the Casa Blanca is indeed the White House in Spanish, there could well be many blancas casas in a row on my street and no one would think anything of it because you're not contrasting their color with some other houses' color, just stating it as a bland fact. The numerous Romance languages do not all enjoy the same degree of expressivity and flexibility in this matter of ordering, but most are more flexible with this than you might casually imagine. – tchrist Sep 15 '17 at 2:15
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    Because "purple" doesn't rhyme with "anyhow": I never saw a Cow Purple / I never hope to see one / But I can tell you, anyhow / I’d rather see than be one! – Hot Licks Sep 15 '17 at 3:09
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This isn't specific to colour. In English the vast majority of attributive adjectives precede the nouns they modify. In French the great majority come after the nouns, although there are quite a few common exceptions.

English is a Germanic language, like German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic. French is a Romance language, like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.

In Germanic languages, descriptive adjectives "appear predominantly to the left of the head noun" (Harbert, The Germanic Languages, Cambridge University Press, p127). Additionally, across the Germanic languages, adjectives tend to appear in a "more or less constant" relative order (e.g. colour adjectives appear closer to the noun than quantity adjectives, and adjectives describing permanent qualities occur closer than those describing temporary qualities). In early medieval times, though, the N-Adj order was "not infrequent" in at least some of the Germanic languages, although it may be that these postnominal adjectives should be interpreted as appositive or quasi-predicative "rather than postposed modifying adjectives" (ibid., pp127-9).

Posner (The Romance Languages, Cambridge University Press) points out that that according to studies of language typology, SVO languages tend to put the adjectives after the nouns they modify, whereas SOV languages put the adjectives before the nouns (as Germanic languages do despite being largely SVO). Latin was predominantly SOV (although SVO, OVS etc were also used for emphasis), whereas Romance languages are predominantly SVO. This would lead to a prediction that Latin ought to favour pre-posed adjectives and Romance postposed ones. In fact the Latin pattern is more complicated. Romance is somewhat complicated too, as although adjectives are mostly postposed, some adjectives are always pre-posed, and the amount of pre-position tends to be greater in elevated and literary language than in popular language (Posner, p146).

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    Green (The Romance Languages, Oxford University Press) points out on p105 how in one discourse analysis of this phenomenon in Romance, that “the relative ordering of adjective and noun is itself meaningful, that postnominal placement denotes contrast, the establishment of a difference, whereas prenominal order merely provides a characterisation without implying any contrast.” Compare Spanish las verdes hojas ‘the green leaves’ with las hojas azules ‘the BLUE leaves’. And on p115 is a fascinating discussion of SV & SVO vs. VS, VSO & VOS belying any simplistic model. – tchrist Sep 15 '17 at 2:05
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    "The Latin pattern is more complicated." Couldn't this go without saying? – KSmarts Sep 15 '17 at 15:21
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    @tchrist: In Spanish, Adj-N is typically non-restrictive, whereas N-Adj is typically restrictive; so "Las verdes hojas eran hermosas" means "The leaves, which were green, were beautiful" (all the leaves were green and beautiful) whereas "Las hojas azules eran hermosas" means "The leaves that were blue were beautiful" (not all the leaves were blue; only the blue ones were beautiful). – ruakh Sep 16 '17 at 0:13
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    English is also more complicated. Heir apparent. Attorney General. Court martial. Time immemorial. – Mike Scott Sep 16 '17 at 15:06
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    @MikeScott an airman basic once gave me some pound sterling and suggested that I pray to God Almighty that someday I could meet a notary public and sing the body electric with malice prepense. If you receive this message, could you send me a whisky sour and some nachos supreme? I'll be at the Battle Royale, as in times past. Thanks, Professor Emeritus Robert Columbia. – Robert Columbia Sep 17 '17 at 11:53
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This is not specific to colours, but all adjectives in the English language and even then there are cases when this order isn't observed.

Here are some common expressions that are structured and also pluralise in a fashion similar to that in a Romance language (the proper term for these is postpositive adjectives):

  • court/courts martial
  • attorney/attorneys general
  • heir/heirs apparent
  • poet/poets laureate

This is primarily due to such terminology (mostly of legal and military nature) being imported wholesale from French with little adaptation to suit English language conventions. I'm not going to go into the context behind it as another poster has already done this, just wanted to mention some fairly common examples that perhaps aren't immediately obvious.

More examples here.

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    These are rather rare edge cases, though. There are much more common cases where adjectives follow the noun they modify, namely when they have complements: “a city steeped in history”, “a man devoid of compassion”, etc. These are analysable as reduced relative clauses, but they need not be. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 15 '17 at 18:37
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    The OP clearly mentions "colours", nothing about adjectives in general, and all the cited examples contain a colour word. – Mari-Lou A Sep 15 '17 at 19:13
  • @Mari-LouA And yet the top answer doesn't treat this as a question specifically about colours, but a question specifically about adjective order. Bit of a double standard, I think. – Nobilis Sep 16 '17 at 11:29
  • Yet it mentions it in passing. I haven't upvoted any of the answers posted if that is of interest. – Mari-Lou A Sep 16 '17 at 11:35
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    @Mari-LouA but that concerns the order of adjectives with respect to one another and not with respect to the noun (the fundamental issue here being whether they all go before or after it). In any case, I've edited my answer to clarify that it doesn't apply to just colours. – Nobilis Sep 16 '17 at 12:06
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Unsatisfyingly, the answer to your question of 'Why does one language do it one way and another language the other?' is that language rules are arbitrary, they just are and there's no reason.

That's a bit of an exaggeration, but the sentiment is well documented. You grow up learning the rules of a language implicitly (no one is teaching you to put adjectives before a noun), but they seem so logical and forceful and to do it any other way would be madness. It surely would be madness in English, it's just not madness for other languages.

Some languages put adjectives (like colors or other descriptors) before the noun 'white house', some afterwards 'casa blanca'. Some put them before and after (FR 'la petite(little) poule(chicken) rouge(red)'. Some put the verb before the object (EN clothes makes the man), some after (LA vestis(clothes) virum(the man) reddit(make)). There are much wilder alternatives: we (those who can read English) follow its rules, and other languages follow theirs.

Who is right? Everybody? Nobody? It's not a matter of 'right' or 'reason', as long as everybody within a community follows the implicitly accepted patterns (note that this can define the community, those that follow a certain pattern are considered a community).

A lot of times we try to come up with justifications, ones that say things like 'the reason adjectives come after nouns is because if you put it first then you don't know what you're modifying until the end forcing you to remember all the way.' or 'Adjectives should come before the noun because they are optional and you only pay attention to the end of a phrase for the important part'. These kinds of rules, as salient as you might think, are simply post-hoc rationalizations for ... wait for it ... arbitrary cultural practices. Do you give gifts for Christmas on the 24th or the 25th? Mustard or mayo on your pastrami? Encouraged to or discouraged from marrying your second cousin or not? Do you say 'He is short' or 'He short'.

I haven't given a justification for why these things are arbitrary, but I'll hint at it. That animal that people ride on called a 'horse' in English... why isn't it called that by everybody in the world? The label is arbitrary; as long as people are consistent they'll be understood. Same with syntax, ordering words (or not sometimes), as long as you do it the way people expect, they'll be understood.

Of course it's not 'anything goes'. No language just scrambles all words arbitrarily whenever. Despite what you may have heard about Latin, there are some things you just can't do in it. For example, a preposition comes immediately before the object it is ... preposing.

All I can say is that these rules are mostly arbitrary but you still gotta learn them otherwise you'll sound weird in that language.

Pax vobiscum.

  • +1 for that last sentence after writing "a preposition comes immediately before" – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 17 '17 at 10:02
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English has a great many words borrowed from French but, as rjpond has said, is a Germanic language.

During the 5th century, Germanic tribes people known as Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to settle in the British Isles. Over the next 600 years the language, culture and politics of the British Isles were completely transformed. Anglo Saxon dialect words form the basis of the language now called Old English, and approximately one third of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary still survives into modern English.

In 1066, the Normans invaded England (battle of Hastings and all that). For over 300 years French was the language of power, spoken by royalty, aristocrats and high-powered officials. During this time, thousands of French words entered the English language. (www.bl.uk)

Now what we have in English is in some ways a hybrid of German and French, but also having evolved over the past hundreds of years. However, the positioning of adjectives before nouns persists.

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    Yes, its hybrid nature is well known, but causes people to forget sometimes that English is still basically a Germanic language. This isn't just a question of genealogy but of basic structure. The hybridity manifests primarily in vocab. – rjpond Sep 15 '17 at 6:44
  • @rjpond - A lot more than vocabulary has changed: modern English has lost of Germanic grammar such as declension of nouns and adjectives (though not pronouns) and compound verbs at the end of sentences, to make it more like Norman French or at least easier for them to speak – Henry Sep 16 '17 at 0:12
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    @Henry - Of course I didn't mean that only vocabulary had changed. Rather I meant that the basic structure of the language is still Germanic in many key respects. A generalisation obviously. But to respond to your specific point, some other Germanic languages, such as Swedish, have undergone many of the same changes, calling into question how much of it can really be put down to the French. For example, Swedish has no case system for nouns, adjectives or articles either, and nor does it move verbs to the end of clauses as German often does. – rjpond Sep 16 '17 at 0:29
  • @rjpond It seems likely that the simplification of English is indeed due to Nordic influence. After all, there were permanent Viking settlements and realms (aptly named "Danelaw") long before the Normans invaded. – MauganRa Sep 16 '17 at 20:26
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    @MauganRa Very true. Yet the Norse spoken by the settlers was still at that time heavily inflected. But one theory is that the efforts of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons to understand each other encouraged a levelling of inflections in English, and such a tendency could also have been encouraged either by Norman/English interaction or, from another perspective, by the exclusion of English from official spheres for two or three centuries. OTOH a lot of levelling of inflections has also taken place in the same period in mainland Scand., but not quite to the same extent (e.g. definite v indefinite adj). – rjpond Sep 16 '17 at 20:52
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English's objections to Romance adjective order is not so strong that "in meadows green my cows do graze" would appear fundamentally more offensive than "my cows graze in green meadows".

The balance in meaning and strangeness for the switched order is different in different languages, but it's rare that one order is absolutely prohibitive.

As a loose handwaving rule, Romance languages with more of a connection to Latin than English tend to have a preference for putting the adjective after its reference while Germanic languages tend to prefer putting it first. Either have Indogermanic roots where word order played quite less of a role than it does in modern languages.

2

I can't speak to why some languages do and some languages don't but I do know there are advantages to each. Let me explain:

With Casa Blanca you hear the word Casa first, and you get an image of a house (obviously the more important concept) in your mind. Then when you hear Blanca you refine that concept from just a house to a white house (let's leave politics out of this for the moment).

But with White House you hear White first -- since this does not convey enough information to form a meaningful concept, the word White is just put in "temporary storage" for the moment. Then when you hear House you put the two words together and get a white house -- so you don't think of a (more generic) house first, then have to erase that concept and replace it with the more specific one.

Just my $.02.

Jennifer

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