In English, word order is an important way of showing who did what to who. For example, compare these two sentences:
a) the dog bit the man
b) the man bit the dog
Changing the order of the words changes the meaning drastically. English uses the word order SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT, which means that in sentence a) ‘the dog’ is the subject and ‘the man’ is the object, and we know that the dog is the one doing something (in this case, biting) to the man. In sentence b) the fact that ‘the man’ comes before the verb means it’s the subject of the sentence, and is the one doing the action to the one after the verb.
In many Aboriginal languages, word order doesn’t have the same function. Instead, there may be something attached to a word to show who is the subject, or who is the object. While no language has completely ‘free’ word order, languages differ in how word order affects meaning.
In Kunwinjku, word order doesn’t matter in the same way as in English.
- Duruk bibayeng bininj
- Bininj bibayeng duruk
Both these sentences mean “the dog bit the man” despite word order. In Kunwinjku a prefix on the verb specifies who did it to whom. So regardless of word order, we know who did the biting. Duruk is still the subject, whether it’s before or after the verb, and bininj is still the object, no matter where it is in the sentence.