Cheyenne word order

              Word order refers to the order in which words occur in a language. Often linguists want to know the order in which words occur in a sentence.

Fixed word orders

              There are some fixed word orders in Cheyenne. Quantifiers precede the nouns they modify, as do deictic pronouns:

              haesto ka'ėškóneho 'many children'
              na'ėstse amȧho'hestȯtse 'one car'
              neše he'eo'o 'two women'


Question words (interrogative pronouns) occur as the first element in a sentence:

              Hénová'e tséméseto? 'What did you eat?'
              Névááhe tsévéhonevėstse? 'Who is the boss?'
              Tóne'še néévȧho'ėhóo'ōhtse? 'When did you get back home?'

              Tósa'e néhoo'e? 'Where do you live?'

Word order and speech context

Cheyenne subject and object nouns occur in an order determined by the speech context. That is, their order is pragmatically determined. Elena Leman (1999) has researched the pragmatic factors that determine word order in Cheyenne. She discovered that a word that is "newsworthy"[1] occurs as the first element[2] in a Cheyenne sentence.

A word is newsworthy if it receives some special attention such as if it is emphasized  or contrastive. The newsworthy word in a sentence may be a subject or object noun, a verb, or some other sentence element. The first word in each of the following sentences is newsworthy:

Mé'ėstse néohkenėheto'eétahe! 'Always you're doing that!'
Naa mȯséškanetsénoonáhe mósto'sevéseéetsėhe'ȯhtsėhéhe tséhmóheeohtséstovetse. 'And the bat (in contrast to the animals and birds mentioned in the preceding sentences in this story) was also going to go to where there was a meeting.' (The Bat story, in the Texts section of this book)


If you are a Cheyenne speaker and someone asks you how to translate an English sentence to Cheyenne, do not copy the order of words in the English sentence. Cheyenne word order is different from English word order in sentences. English sentences usually have a required word order based on English syntax (grammar), namely, subject nouns come before their verbs and object nouns follow them. Cheyenne grammar does follow this syntactic order for words in a sentence. A Cheyenne sentence which follows the English word order may not sound wrong by itself, but it will not have the best word order unless it follows the natural Cheyenne order for words as a conversation or other discourse progresses.

Free word order

Some linguists have referred to languages such as Cheyenne as free word order languages. By this they mean that subject and object nouns, verbs, and sometimes other sentence elements can occur in any order. But it is not appropriate to call Cheyenne a free word order language, since it actually does have word order patterns determined by pragmatics (the speech context). Similarly, it may not be appropriate to call some other languages free word order languages either, if they have factors that determine word order other than syntax.

Basic word order and naturalness

Linguists often refer to basic word order in languages in terms of the abbreviations S, V, and O, where S = Subject, V = Verb, and O = Object. English is an SVO language because if there is a man we've been talking about and he shot a deer we would express this in English as "The man shot a deer." "The man" is S (Subject). The verb (V) is "shot". And the O (Object) is "a deer". Sometimes linguists ask if Cheyenne is an SVO language, or if it has some some other basic word order, such as SOV.

To answer this question, we must return to the observations just made, that overall Cheyenne word order in sentences is not determined by syntax, but, instead, by speech context (pragmatics). So we really cannot say that Cheyenne has a basic word order such as SVO.

Next, it should be noted that it is rare in Cheyenne for both a subject and object noun to occur with a verb. If you study natural Cheyenne texts, such as those which appear in the Texts section of this book, you may not find a single sentence with subject and object noun along with a verb. So it's basically a moot question to ask what is the basic word order in Cheyenne, in terms of linguistic symbols such as S, V, and O.

It is important for Cheyenne sentences to be grammatically correct as well as natural. So, if you are a Cheyenne speaker and someone asks you to translate an English sentence with both a subject and object noun, hesitate before simply translating the English sentence word for word. For instance, hesitate before translating an English sentence such as "The man saw a deer" to Cheyenne. It is possible to translate this sentence directly to Cheyenne as: Hetane móhvóomȯhevóhe váotseváhne. That is a grammatical sentence in Cheyenne. But this sentence would not likely occur naturally in Cheyenne.

Instead, in natural Cheyenne, speakers would more likely express the same meaning in more than one sentence. Typically, a Cheyenne speaker would introduce the man in a sentence such as: Hetane mó'ameohtsėhéhe 'A man was going along.' Then in the next sentence it can be said what the man saw, as in: Móhvóomȯhevóhe váotseváhne 'He saw a deer.' (The Cheyenne word for 'man', hetane, would not usually be repeated in the second sentence.)

It's just not natural to try to get too much information into a single Cheyenne sentence. For that matter, it probably isn't natural in English either, at least not for a sentence uttered by itself without any preceding context.

An important principle for translation of anything into any language, including Cheyenne, is to avoid asking (and answering) the question "Can you say this in your language?" Instead, it is better to ask the question, "Is this said in your language?" or "How do you naturally express this meaning in your language?" It is not only important to say things grammatically correct in a language, but also to say them naturally.

Study of natural texts, including conversations, speeches, and stories, in Cheyenne can help us understand natural ways of speaking Cheyenne. We must always be cautious about directly translating anything from English, or any other language, to Cheyenne. Instead, we must try to say things in Cheyenne as they would be said if they were part of a natural conversation between two or more fluent Cheyenne speakers.


[1] The "newsworthiness" concept has been described by Mithun (1987).
[2] Or it can be the second position if the first position is a discourse connector such as naa 'and'.