English is a Germanic language, it shares a common ancestor with languages like German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic. However, despite this Germanic origin, English has been heavily influenced by two other languages, namely Latin and French, due to the ruling of England by the Romans in the first century and by the Normans, who spoke a dialect of French, in the 11th. It is estimated that about 70% of all English words ultimately have their roots from Latin or French (which is itself a descendant of Latin). As a result, Present Day English (PDE) is vastly different from other Germanic languages such as German.
There are still some traces though. One of such traces can be observed in what is called the verb-second, or V2, word order, which is peculiar and characteristic in German and related languages. So before we move on to talk about the V2 word order in English, let us first have a quick look at what V2 is like in German.
A normal simple sentence in German is in many ways similar to its English counterpart. Consider the following sentence, the sentence can be basically translated into English word for word.
Ich gehe ins Kino. I am going to the cinema
What is interesting is that sometimes when we want to stress on a part of a sentence, we move that part to the beginning. For example, in English we may say,
To the cinema, I am going.
This is called topicalization. We move a part of a sentence to the beginning to make it the topic of that sentence.
In German, though, something interesting happens when we topicalize a sentence:
Ins Kino gehe ich. to the cinema am going I
When the phrase ‘ins Kinos’ is moved to the front, instead of staying in front of ‘gehe’, the subject ‘ich’ has to fall to the position after the verb. This is because in German, the V2 word order requires that the verb has to be the second element in a sentence.
A slightly more complex sentence illustrates this better.
Ich gehe heute ins Kino mit Wolfgang. I am going today to the cinema with Wolfgang “I am going to the cinema today with Wolfgang”
In German, all the following sentences are possible:
Heute gehe ich ins Kino mit Wolfgang.
Ins Kino gehe ich heute mit Wolfgang.
Mit Wolfgang gehe ich heute ins Kino.
As pointed out above, the verb has to remain in the second position no matter which element is moved to the front, and the subject has to move to the right of the verb.
So we have seen how V2 word order works in German, but does it exist in English? The answer is yes, but in a much more limited way.
Have you noticed that the title of this article is a good example of this V2 word order? If you say:
Never have I noticed this!
Then you are right. In fact this word order is so restricted in English that you probably cannot find a lot of examples. Other instance are
Neither have I noticed this!
Not only did I tell her this, I actually wrote it down on a piece of paper!
He is not a leftist, nor is he a rightist!
Note that ‘never’, ‘neither’, ‘not only’ and ’nor’ all carry a negative meaning. cf. :
*Too have I noticed this!
*Also have I noticed this!
PDE has a very dominant SVO (subject-verb-object) word order now. The reason why it has some remnants of V2 sentences is because Old English used to be a V2 language, just like German. Without a glimpse at the language’s past, it could be otherwise quite hard to understand why those sentences exist.