This is a quick note rather than an elaborate post—I was eating at Shakti (the Women’s Cell run lunch center at IITB) yesterday when a group sitting next to me was discussing what they perceived as a semantic ambiguity. The issue was the right term for the Swedish Embassy situated in India. Would it be the Indian Swedish Embassy, or the Swedish Indian Embassy? From what I observed, opinion was divided, but I wasn’t sure whether both sides really computed different meanings or whether one was just trying to play the Devil’s Advocate, trying to defend what might originally have been a mistaken utterance.

For me, the meaning was clear—An Indian Swedish Embassy would mean the Swedish Embassy in India, while a Swedish Indian Embassy would mean the Indian Embassy in Sweden (if your computation is different, please add a comment). But why does it work this way and not the other way?

I think the explanation lies in adjective order. In English, if more than one adjective qualifies a noun, they can’t be put it any random order, but follow a certain semantic ordering. From the Wiki page, the list, which I find more or less correct, and which matches what has been said on this topic in a couple of research papers I went through, is:

  1. quantity or number
  2. quality or opinion
  3. size
  4. age
  5. shape
  6. color
  7. proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
  8. purpose or qualifier

For instance, two cute old brown wooden grass-eating horses.

In case of the embassy, the Swedish in Swedish Embassy looks like #7 or #8, while I can’t put my finger at what semantic type the first adjective would be , but it certainly would have lesser precedence than 7 or 8, precedence here defined as proximity to the noun. However, I am not all that sure whether _Swedish_ as a the nationality qualifier serves the same syntactic role as Swedish as location qualifier. In other words, the nationality qualifier, at least to me, feel inseparable from the noun.

For an example that uses adjectives of type 7 and 8, take _the Chinese German teacher._ It implies that the nationality of the teacher is Chinese, and that they teach German. That’s 7 and 8 for you.

My suspicion was that utterances of the type ‘Indian Swedish Embassy’ would be very rare. To indicate the location, it’s common to say _the [adj] embassy in/at_ . To check, I ran a query on the 425 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). There were 65 hits for the pattern _[j*] [j*] embassy_ (adjective adjective embassy), none of which were of the form we are discussing. The query _[j*] embassy in|at_ generated 597 results.