Adjective order in English: A semantic account with cross-linguistic applications
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Which is more correct, the “big fat cat” or the “fat big cat?” Why is a particular order preferred? In English, established Phrase Structure rules place no limit on the number of adjectives before a noun. The adjectives, however, cannot occur in just any order, and native speakers of English have very particular intuitions about what order is more correct, even if they have never been explicitly taught ordering rules. In this study, I seek to describe the mechanics of an underlying adjective order in English and explore if the same principles operate cross-linguistically. After outlining some previous work across disciplines on the subject, I prove the existence of a preferred order using the results of searches from the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus. Additionally, I briefly discuss the prosodic differences between a given order and its alternative. Secondly, I develop a semantic theory that describes how pre-nominal adjectives are ordered based on their semantic properties, with adjectives that depict “intrinsic” properties closer to the noun, and adjectives that are “speaker relative” in a more distant position. In the theory, the use of multiple adjectives is described as being equivalent to a sequential series of restrictions placed on the set of properties for a given noun. This allows for a change in adjective order to affect the way in which we conceptualize of a noun, while also establishing an underlying order that is the most cognitively efficient. Lastly, I apply the theory to languages from different families, namely Italian, Sakha, Hebrew, and Welsh. My findings demonstrate that a uniquely semantic theory is successful in describing what native speakers perceive as the “proper” order of adjectives in a diverse group of languages.