Hierarchy of Adjectives in the Noun Phrase

Hierarchy of Adjectives in the Noun Phrase

It is a frequent way of natural languages to make a noun in the sentence more specific by using several adjectives/qualifiers before the noun: the ugly big black smoke-spitting articulated lorry. One can also observe that the order or position which these qualifiers take before the noun follows some sort of regularity which is inherently "felt" by the speaker: we say little red riding hood but would (probably) not say riding red little hood.

Linguists have looked into1 this phenomenon and have observed that, interestingly, this "natural order" of qualifiers seems to be universal across languages independent of their origin, and whether adjectives in them typically precede or follow the nouns.

Position of Adjectives

It appears that the usual position of adjectives preceding the noun is as follows:

appraisal size colour origin function material subspecies noun
ugly big black German smoke-spitting steel articulated lorry

As you see, the rule seems to be that the more "inherent" or "essential" the adjective's meaning is, the closer it is to the noun, while adjectives describing appraisal (ugly, nice, unnecessary etc.), which are after all subjective, are the outermost. Obviously these categories may contain more than one adjective at the same time. We can also add to all this that number/quantity precedes the whole construct above (five ugly big black German etc.).


Examples of this type are very scarce in the attested corpus - I have only been able to find four phrases where the noun is preceded or followed by more than one qualifier (if there are examples that I have missed, please share them below!):

ar laiqali linqi falmari “and the green wet waves”

minqe laiqe eldali “eleven green elves”

alcarin Vendë ar manaquenta “O glorious and blessed Virgin”

talin i’lossi ar gwandron nan·Idril “the beautiful white feet of Idril”

What little can be assumed from these examples is that

  • as in English, the position of the number or quantifier is outside the phrase, which is most probably also true in later stage Quenya where the number follows the noun, so in instances where the noun is followed by one or more adjectives and a number, the number comes last: elen kalima silma atta "two bright silver[coloured] stars"
  • as it was intended to be imitating natural languages, Quenya (and possibly Sindarin as well) probably follows the same hierarchy before (or after) noun: i vanima halla laiqua alda
  • although Quenya is "relaxed" in that in it adjectives can precede or follow their nouns, it probably cannot happen at the same time. Alcarin Vende ar manaquenta suggests to me that **Alcarin Vende manaquenta would be ungrammatical, but the speaker can "get around it" by separating the following adjective with a conjunction: halla alda ar vanima [alda]
  • would both alcarin and manaquenta precede Vende, they would probably still be separated by a conjunction (ar, yo etc.) because they both are in the same category
  • it is interesting to see the definite article before the adjectives in talin i'lossi ar gwandron nan·Idril, it almost suggests to me that this is some sort of a clause: "the feet, the beautiful and white [ones], of Idril" (but notice that these following adjectives neatly comply with the reverse order of the hierarchy described above)
  • 1. Zeno Vendler and Robert Hetzron are cited as having written the most known examples