Chapter Order of Degree Word and Adjective

by Matthew S. Dryer

1. Defining the values

This map shows the position of degree words with respect to the adjective that they modify. For the purposes of this map, the term adjective  should be interpreted in a purely semantic sense, as a word denoting a property, since in many languages the words in question do not form a separate word class, but are verbs or nouns. Degree words are words with meanings like ‘very’, ‘more’, or ‘a little’ that modify the adjective to indicate the degree to which the property denoted by the adjective obtains. Degree words are traditionally referred to as adverbs, though in many languages the degree words do not belong to the same word class as adverbs; even for English there is little basis for saying that degree words belong to the same word class as adverbs which modify verbs.

Values of Map 91A. Order of Degree Word and Adjective
Go to map
Degree word precedes adjective (DegAdj) 227
Degree word follows adjective (AdjDeg) 192
Both orders occur with neither order dominant 62
Total: 481

The first type shown on the map consists of languages in which the degree word precedes the adjective. An example of such a language is Pumi (Tibeto-Burman; China), as in (1).

(1) Pumi (Ding 1998: 107) 







‘very deep’ 

Most European languages, like English (e.g. very tall, too small, somewhat afraid ), are also instances of this type. The second type consists of languages in which the degree word follows the adjective, as in the example in (2) from Kairiru (Oceanic; Papua New Guinea).

(2) Kairiru (Wivell 1981: 74) 










‘... the sea is too murky.’ 

The third value shown on the map includes languages in which both orders occur with neither dominant (see “Determining Dominant Word Order”). In some languages, such as Kisi (Atlantic, Niger-Congo; Guinea), degree words in general can either precede or follow the adjective (Childs 1995: 256). In many other languages, however, individual degree words differ as to whether they precede or follow the adjective. For example, in Wari’ (Chapacura-Wanham; Brazil), the degree words meaning ‘a little’ precedes the adjective, as in (3a), while the word meaning ‘very’ follows, as in (3b); no other degree words are apparently mentioned by Everett and Kern (1997).

(3) Wari’ (Everett and Kern 1997: 346)














‘a little dirty’ 


‘very dirty’ 

In English, the degree word enough  differs from other degree words in that it follows the adjective (large enough  vs. very large ). One order is considered dominant if the number of degree words that occur on one side of the adjective is more than twice the number that occur on the other side. For example, in Indonesian, Sneddon (1996: 177-181) lists fifteen degree words that precede the noun, four that follow, and one that either precedes or follows, so Indonesian is coded on the map as placing the degree word before the adjective. Conversely, Wari’ is coded as a language with both orders where neither order is dominant.

In some languages, the order of degree word and adjective depends on whether the adjective is being used attributively, i.e. modifying a noun, or predicatively. This is the case in Ndyuka (Creole; Suriname), in which a degree word precedes an adjective used attributively, as in (4a), but follows an adjective used predicatively, as in (4b).

(4) Ndyuka (Huttar and Huttar 1994: 173, 175)












‘a very great power’ 











‘You’ve become very elegant.’ 

Tetelcingo Nahuatl (Tuggy 1979: 76) and Quiotepec Chinantec (Robbins 1968: 59-60) are similar. 

In some languages, there are degree morphemes which occur as affixes on adjectives. The comparative and superlative suffixes in English (-er  in stronger, -est  in strongest ) are examples of degree affixes. Similarly, in many languages, the meaning ‘very’ is expressed by an affix, as in the example in (5) from Maricopa (Yuman; Arizona).

(5) Maricopa (Gordon 1986: 141) 





‘You are very tall.’ 

This map does not include degree affixes, restricting attention to separate words expressing degree. Some languages are not included on the map because the only degree morphemes mentioned in descriptions are affixes. 

2. Geographical distribution

Languages in which the degree word precedes the adjective constitute the overwhelmingly dominant type, with very few exceptions, in Europe and Asia, except in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is also the dominant type in North America, though with more exceptions. In South America it is the dominant type along the western side of the continent. It is a minority type in Africa and New Guinea. The distribution of types is quite mixed in Australia and among the Austronesian languages of Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific.

Languages in which the degree word follows the adjective are the dominant type in Africa and in New Guinea. They are the dominant type in South America except down the western side of the continent. They also constitute the dominant type in the mainland of Southeast Asia, in an area extending westward to include languages along the border between India and Burma. 

Languages lacking a dominant order are widespread but are distinctly infrequent in much of Europe and Asia, again with the exception of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They are particularly common in Southeast Asia and among Austronesian languages. The strong areal pattern across much of Europe and Asia is in striking contrast to the lack of patterning within Austronesian languages. Even within relatively small regions, such as Sumatra or the Philippines, both orders are found.