PhD defence: Why an apple, appel or Apfel comes before or after the verb

Date of news: 1 March 2022

In German and Dutch clauses, the verb comes after the object, as in 'dass er einen Apfel gegessen hat' and ‘dat hij een appel gegeten heeft’. In English, it is the other way round: 'that he has eaten an apple'. Linguist Tara Struik investigated how it is possible that languages that are so related show such a fundamental difference in word order. She will defend her thesis on 3 March.

appel apfel or apple

‘Dat hij een appel gegeten heeft', 'dass er einen Apfel gegessen hat' and 'that he has eaten an apple'. Looking at these clauses, it is easy to see that Dutch, German and English are very similar. Yet one thing stands out: in Dutch and German, the object (apple) comes before the verb, in English, it comes after. ‘It is fascinating that languages which are so closely related to each other show such a fundamental difference in word order’, says linguist Tara Struik. ‘And this becomes even more remarkable when we look at earlier language stages: there, all three languages allow for the same order. In an earlier language stage of English, for example, 'that he has eaten an apple' was as grammatical as 'that he an apple has eaten'.’

Radically different?

The order object - verb is called Object-Verb (OV) order. The reverse order is Verb-Object (VO). Whether the basic order of a language is OV or VO is an important question in linguistics, because these orders each have their own underlying syntactic building blocks. Struik: 'An OV language is thus considered very different from a VO language. From that perspective, today's English and today's Dutch and German are radically different languages.'

Struik's research is not the first work to address the OV/VO differences in Dutch, German and English. 'But there is a question that has not yet received much attention,' says Struik. 'Are these languages structurally the same in their earlier stages and have they grown apart later, or were the languages already different and have they grown apart even more?'

Given versus new

In order to find an answer to this question, Struik conducted an extensive corpus analysis on various databases of Old English, Early Middle English, Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, Middle Low German, Old High German and Old High German. By taking different language stages, she was able - in addition to comparing them - to examine their development over time.

In her research, Struik assumed that information structure played an important role in the earlier stages of Dutch, German and English. By information structure she means the organisation of a sentence according to the given-before-new principle: information that has already been mentioned (for example in a longer piece of text about a specific apple) is placed earlier in the sentence than new information (when the apple is mentioned for the first time). The hypothesis for this research is that objects known from the context (=given) appear more often before the verb, and unknown or new (=new) objects appear more often after the verb.


For Old English and Early Middle English, the corpus analysis showed that new objects occur exclusively in VO order. The OV order is reserved for objects that are already known (given), although given objects also occur in VO order. According to Struik, this is a strong indication for a VO base, where an object motivated by givenness is moved from the base structure to a position earlier in the sentence. When comparing Old English with Early Middle English, it appears that this principle was still valid in the latter stage, but that the number of OV objects was decreasing.

For German and Dutch, the situation is different. In those earlier stages of Dutch, the order verb-subject (VO) is motivated by newness. That is, objects that come after the verb are almost always new, while the position before the verb can contain both new and given objects. In Old Saxon too, given objects occur mainly in OV order, while new objects can be placed freely in VO order. In both languages, the number of VO sequences is gradually decreasing.

Special function

In the earlier stages of English, Dutch and German, given objects could occur both before and after the verb. But in which position they were placed had different reasons. In older English, a direct object before the verb indicates that it has already been mentioned. In earlier Dutch and German, the emphasis is on how new a direct object is, and it almost always comes after the verb.

Struik: 'The influence of information structure on the final word order apparently works in the opposite direction for English compared to Dutch, German and Low German. For all three languages, the order that is now considered ungrammatical had a special function and was used to signal whether the direct object was already mentioned or not. This special function is no longer present in all three languages. On a syntactic level, the variation is therefore the same, but in earlier language stages it was already hinting that German and Dutch are heading towards OV, and English towards VO'.

Tara Struik will defend her thesis on 3 March, starting at 10.30 am.