Some time ago, my mother showed me a brochure advertising Cavalia’s Odysseo, an acrobatic act arriving in Toronto that has garnered some truly spectacular reviews. Whilst things like this aren’t typically interesting to me, nearly all forms of text are, so I read some fragments. It was then that I stumbled upon something odd.
The back of the brochure, as published by the show, describes Odysseo as occurring under a “white big top”.
Many would note that, because the main tent used by a circus to house its audience is traditionally termed a “big top”, the former author is correct, and this particular difference in adjective ordering is not worth much consideration.
Other questions concerning describing words and the way we intuitively perceive them are significantly more interesting, however. Adjectives are generally fascinating components of language in many senses: they work to add layers of meaning to objects, and information about the way we process them is therefore useful to understanding innate higher-level observational and analytical skills.
Certainly, there is a prescribed order in which attributive adjectives are meant to appear in the English noun phrase: quantity first, then quality or opinion, size, age, shape, color, proper adjective (e.g., a nationality or a material), and finally, purpose or modifier. But I, for one, was not taught this in elementary school; very infrequently have I encountered a Canadian student that did chance upon this information early on in life. And yet, somehow, one doesn’t hear small children terming Clifford the “red, big dog”.
What is responsible for our seemingly innate understanding of the order in which adjectives should appear? Do we simply retrieve ordering information from varied forms of media and our environments so extremely early in life that our understanding appears intuitive? Or is this something internal? It’s also interesting to note that, in certain languages, ordering is far less rigidly defined. On a different note entirely, what is the origin of the distinction between postpositive adjectives and those that precede nouns?
I discussed my first few thoughts with Cyril early one morning, and as always, we’ve decided to begin by seizing a data set, tossing anything irrelevant via a naive phrase marking algorithm, and thereby gaining access to a large number of adjective sequences that we can further analyze. Eventually, I hope to use MEG and MRI to examine how differing orders are neurophysiologically received in English-first-language subjects, and what kind of brain pattern activations result when a subject is faced with an incorrect order.
Now to find a plaintext, useful, large data set! (Didn’t that sound dreadful?)