Saturday, January 03, 2009

Order of adjectives

By the time I started learning Spanish, I'd already studied three languages formally. Two of them, Latin and ancient Greek, have extremely complicated grammar. So I was well-versed in all terms grammatical---all the parts of speech, noun and adjective declensions, verb tenses and aspects and voices and persons. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the structure of the languages I know.

I was shocked, therefore, when a fellow student in Mexico brought up something I'd never even considered before: order of adjectives. You can't say "a black small cat"; it has to be "a small black cat". I don't remember learning this in my English grammar classes, but as a native English speaker I can tell you what sounds right and what doesn't.

There is, in fact, an accepted order of adjectives in English, depending on the quality described. Size comes before color. Other languages have their own orders (see here for a description in Spanish), which seem more or less similar, with accommodations for non-English constructions like postpositive adjectives.

What I find curious is the fact that I never learned order of adjectives explicitly, not in English or any of my foreign language classes. Is it because it's more of a custom than a rule (though making the distinction is always a little dicey)? Or because there's some inherent hierarchy based on how humans perceive material qualities (I find this a little hard to believe)? I do see the subject mentioned occasionally in ESL classes. I'd love to know from my readers who learned English formally in other countries whether this topic was ever discussed.


S said...

I do not remember ever explicitly learning this, either, but I would also never say color before size. I wonder what other unspoken "rules" exist that we would recognize if pointed out to us. As I'm thinking about it, it occurs to me that perhaps color is always the adjective that comes right before the noun. I suspect my reading will be a tad stilted now as I'm considering adjective order!

Gail T. said...

i learned English formally starting in kindergarten in the Philippines, but i was already exposed to English before kindy.

i remember learning this order of adjective in school really early, but i don't think it was discussed again more than once since. i am not even certain if other Filipinos would remember ever hearing of this rule.

p.s. good luck to your language study goals this year.

Language Lover said...

S., if you follow the link I provided, there are actually several adjectives that can follow color (e.g. pink cotton sleeping bag). As a lawyer, you might be interested to know that the second time I encountered this subject was in my legal interpreting class, where there was a question on how to order the various adjectives for weapons and ammunition (Remington, double-barreled, jacketed, hollow-point, 9mm, etc.). There was considerable disagreement even among the native speakers, possibly because those adjectives don't easily fall into the typical categories.

Gail, thanks for sharing your experience. I'm curious, in Tagalog (if that is your native language), is there also a standard order of adjectives, and how close is it to English?