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The Green Great Dragon

Image result for green dragon

It was J.R.R. Tolkien who first wrote, in a reminiscence of his childhood and of an early effort at fantasy writing, that one cannot refer in English to a "green great dragon." Size must come before color. It must be a great green dragon. He also expressed his continuing puzzlement, as boy and man, about this philological fact.

Recently, someone among my FB friends posted a photo of a book, author unspecified and unknown to me, which addresses the point more comprehensively.

According to this unsourced book, the proper list is: opinion, size, age, shape, color,  origin, material, purpose Noun. So one could encounter a terrifying great ancient smooth-lined green demon-sired flesh-and-blood gold-guarding dragon. Then presumably edit down the adjectives to just two, keeping the order.

Is this a Chomskyan thing or a Skinnerian thing? If different languages have different preferred adjective orders then we might describe this as a Skinnerian discovery. The 'proper' order is a learned and culture-specific instance of verbal behavior. But should the list prove invariant, one would have a great green piece of evidence supporting the Chomskyan critique of Skinner in language.

Tolkien's own report would seem to support Skinner. He said that he wrote the story involving the green great dragon when he was seven, and showed it to his mother, who made this philological observation about word order in reaction. If he had to learn this at age 7, then how innate and invariant can it be?


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