The Japanese language is considered syntactically a Subject-Object-Verb or SOV language in contrast to English which is considered a subject-Verb-Object or SVO language, as these two example sentences will show.
(1) Ken wa (S) tama wo (O) uchimashita (V).
(2) Ken (S) hit (V) the ball (O).
While it is not possible to move the syntactical elements around in English without a changing its meaning, it is possible in Japanese. Why this is so is due partly to particles (助詞). Particles mark the syntactic role of the word or phrase before it. By doing so this means the entire phrase including the particle can move to any other position within a sentence without losing its marked role.
The ‘wa’ and ‘wo’ in (1) are particles.
The English syntactic elements, however, are not marked whatsoever by particles (particles do not exist in English) and only show their syntactic distinction to other elements within the sentence unit by its relative position to each other. The sentence is therefore the unit. The rearranged syntactic units of (3) below in contrast to (2) has a now a completely different meaning because of the changed positions of the subject (S) and object (O).
(3) The ball (S) hit (V) Ken (O).
So Japanese is considered an SOV language because most often the elements follow this order and not because it is fixed by its position like English. But English learners of Japanese can safely assume this structure for learning purposes.
There is something very similar to the chicken-or-the-egg question about formal grammar in which meaning is ignored and only the formal properties of the string is discussed.
But would that string exist without production of meaning, without the communicative desire to impart something in an instance of existence?
This is also like asking what is the meaning of life as if life needs to have some universal meaning or purpose before life can arise. There is something a priori about this logic.
This is where Chomskyan linguistics, to me, fails to convince – that there can be an explanation of language without meaning. Whether it be a word, phrase, clause or sentence there will always be two sides to a sign (in the Saussurean sense). Phoneme and basic-unit phonology are different in that they are the building blocks of language and not invested with meaning.
By looking at language and variation in the system is a mathematical exercise that cannot explain the inherent meaning of utterances (which, sadly, it is not trying to explain at all in the first place). For me language is about meaning, and about the limitations a language’s form has on expressing meaning and not the other way around. Syntax should therefore take into account semantics or rather syntax should be studied through semantics.
While the seven sentence pattern description is the norm in English linguistics today there still persists the use of five sentence description in some non-English speaking countries like Japan which teach English as a foreign language.
Essentially the seven sentence pattern is a five sentence pattern with the extra two pattern as extensions of SVA and SVOA. The problem is that some common sentence patterns seemingly cannot be described by the five sentence pattern model. Take sentence (1.), for example:
- John sat up.
There is ‘John’ and he is performing the action of sitting up from perhaps a slouched position. In other words there is one actor doing one action. Therefore it is an SV pattern (John (S) / sat up (V)). Now consider (2.):
the grammar police are here
and now i must ask for forgiveness
for my syns.
that i have to pay for in