I'm trying to figure out if word order effects the meaning of a sentence. I've learnt that verbs should always come last and heard that the order of other words in the sentence isn't that strict as the subject and object can be determined from the particle. In contrast I know in English the subject and object is determined from word order.

So are these two sentences "I bought a dictionary" the same:

  1. 私は辞書{じしょ}を買い{かい}ました。

  2. 辞書{じしょ}を私は買い{かい}ました。

  • "verbs should always come last" isn't even strictly followed in all cases. It is fairly common in speech for another clause (e.g. "Xを") to be added on afterwards, e.g. as an afterthought or clarification. – CAW Oct 19 '16 at 8:04

Yes, both share the same meaning, though sentence 2 sounds a little unreal (may be it could be possible in a poem or lyrics).

There is a word in linguistics called a "syntax marker". Japanese marks a sentence's syntax or structure using particles. Russian does so using word declensions. For languages with neither particles nor declensions, like English and Chinese, word order matters in order to indicate the structure.

So, Japanese has a somewhat freer word-order thanks to its particles.

  • While English nouns don't decline, our verbs still conjugate. And we have prepositions as syntax markers and that gives us a little bit of flexibility. – virmaior Nov 9 '14 at 5:12
  • Thank you for correcting my English! Yes English has prepositions and a partilce-like "'s" and they function just like you said. I just skipped it avoiding complication.. Contemporary Chinese also has prepositions. – isayamag Nov 9 '14 at 5:44
  • The order of noun phrases may not matter (though orders some are more common than others), but the verb still needs to end the clause (or be omitted entirely). – Wlerin Nov 9 '14 at 17:27

Yes, the word order makes a slight difference in modality which describes the thought/emotion/belief of the speaker about the contents of a sentence/sentences towards the listener.

  1. 私は辞書{じしょ}を買い{かい}ました。
  2. 辞書{じしょ}を私は買い{かい}ました。

Both are completely accurate as a sentence in Japanese and mean 'I bought a dictionary' in English as you said. These two sentences can be decided into 3 clause phrases called 文節{ぶんせつ} in Japanese. 文節 is composed with an independent word (i.e., noun, adjective, verb) and an adjunct word (i.e. は, が, を).

1'. 私は / 辞書{じしょ}を / 買い{かい}ました。
2'. 辞書{じしょ}を / 私は / 買い{かい}ました。

Japanese tends to place the phrases in order of what the speaker wants to impress. In the sentence #2', 辞書{じしょ}を is placed in the first of the sentence, so the speaker wants to impress 辞書{じしょ}. Although, は is following 私 in the sentence. は is a topic marker and [noun/noun clause + は] is apt to position in the first in the sentence because it tells what is the topic/theme. So the sentence #2 & 2' sound a bit unnatural/unreal for some people. To make it sound more natural, you can replace を following 辞書{じしょ} to は and は following 私 to が*;

As for/talking about what I bought, it is a dictionary.

が is the subject marker in this sentence to tell who is the doer of the action (買いました). This will be another discussion, so I won't go further than this now.

  • Isn't it the emphasis the exact opposite of what you said? 辞書は私が買いました。 "As for the dictionary, I was the one who bought it." – octonion Jan 15 at 20:28

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