07 May 2010

Word Order

Have a look at the word order in the full name of the Bukit Shahbandar park in both English and Malay:If we treat Bukit Shahbandar as a name so it is a single entity, then the order of the elements in Malay is the exact reverse of those in English: park is last in English but taman is first in Malay; recreation is second from the end in English but rekreasi is second from the start in Malay; and forest is immediately before recreation in English but hutan is immediately after rekreasi in Malay.

This reflects the fact that Malay is a head-first language: the head of a noun phrase (in this case taman) occurs at the start of the phrase, and all modifiers occur after it.

In contrast, this seems to suggest that English is head-last, with modifiers occurring before the head of the noun phrase, in this case the noun park.

Unfortunately, things are not quite so simple. In fact, English is usually classified as head-first, because in noun phrases such as the following, the head noun is at the start. (The head of each phrase is shown in red while the modifying clause or phrase is in blue.)
books which I have read
discussion of that issue
students sitting at the front
objects left in the room
The difference here is that the modifying elements are not just single words but are rather longer elements. I always think that English should be classified as end-weight: long things (such as relative clauses or prepositional phrases) come after the head but short things (single-word modifiers) come before the head.

Malay is rather simpler: the head of a noun phrase always comes at the start, and all modifiers come after it, regardless of whether they are long or short.