LINGUIST List 11.1919

Tue Sep 12 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. guillermo soto, RE:11.1908, Disc:Linguistics & Nominalising Languages
  2. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.1908, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: RE:11.1908, Disc:Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2000 20:10:52 -0300
From: guillermo soto <>
Subject: RE:11.1908, Disc:Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Dear Ahmad

a) I strongly recommend you reading Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
b) Biologist Humberto Maturana speaks of "languaging"

Guillermo Soto
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Message 2: Re: 11.1908, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2000 13:53:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.1908, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Thank you so much, Prof. Lofti, for bringing this most important point up
for discussion. -- more --

On Mon, 11 Sep 2000, <> wrote:

> Subject: New Discussion: Is our linguistics 'thing'uistics?
> Dear Linguists,
> Indo-European languages are known to have a strong tendency to
> nominalise: the speakers of such languages hunt for 'things' in
> their roundabout. Then people catch 'a cold' (they don't simply
> 'cold' as they cough or sneeze). You don't 'camera'. Instead,
> you take 'a picture' by 'your camera'. And right now, you are
> reading your messages on LINGUIST. They're not 'LINGUISTing you',
> nor you 'LINGUISTing' anything or anyone. 

These are excellent examples, though they could certainly be countered by
a plethora of counterexamples.

> Linguistic determinism presumably wants us to approach such a tendency
> as a part of our world view: nouns are typically more permanent and
> less dynamic than verbs. Then a nominalising language encourages one
> to view the world as more static and less transient than what it
> actually is.

Instead of being my usual aggressive personality when it comes to this
issue, demanding a source citation leading your "presum-"ing, I'll simply
accept this as an accurate statement of the stereotyped position held by
nobody as advanced by the critics of Benjamin Lee Whorf. That Whorf was no
proponent of it is evident by his numerous references to non-deterministic
(probabalistic) quantum physics and its relationship to concepts in
linguistics. But I digress.

As to the main point re: nouns being more static than verbs -- I couldn't
agree more. In fact, I'd go farther: linguistic societies (language/-
culture dynamics) that excessively nounify are after control by fear.

Eddy Izzard has an Emmy-winning bit about flags: Western Europeans would
plant a flag somehwere after coming onshore and claim the land for their
sovereign. The Natives would say, "What do you mean you discovered this
place? We live here." And the explorer would say, "Yes, but do you have a
flag?!" At which point the Natives crumbled

An easy way of picturing this issue is that nouns are simply snapshots of
verbs -- slowed down and stripped of any relationships besides the ones
dictated by the syntax -- and even below that to the number of NPs
demanded or allowed by the verb itself in selectional restrictions
(1-sleep, 2-hit, 3-give); in English, the minimum number is one whereas in
many Native American languages the norm is zero in daily talk, from their

In such a langscape of non-nominalizing (except for teaching, then they're
erased), nominalizing languages present challenges for thinking and
speaking when learned as a second language.

> Within the field of linguistics, we've been looking for an
> explanation/description of 'language' (something out there, or
> something (again 'something') inside). Even those conversationalists
> among us are still more concerned with 'speech' rather than
> 'speaking'. If linguistics were born in a less 'noun-dominated
> culture'(advocates of the doctrine of linguistic determinism assure
> us there are some), 

Whoa! I reject that label completely, as would Whorf were he still with
us, yet I do indeed assure you and everyone else that I am accurately
reporting THEIR claims to speak all day long without uttering a single
noun as a usual event with no particular "trying to". And since any
arbitrary splitting of the dynamic into separate "language" and
"culture" is in the long run futile and to the detriment of both, I'm sure
that what I described would also translate into a "noun-dominated

In such cultures, fixity seems the answer to the everchanging flux of
reality; in my relatives' cultures, "surfing the flux" would be more apt.

> how different would our theories of language be? Is it ever possible
> to have a 'verb-dominated' theory/science of language?

Wow -- bingo! Indigenous epistemologies make an entrance for discussion's
sake! What, indeed, would, say, an indigenous linguistics look like? Take
away the "nouns" and you're really removing the verb's mandatoriness for
X-number of NPs -- so take away pronouns as well, focusing on the dancing
rather thab the dancers.

At the Bohmian Science Dialogue ("The Language of Spiritualiy 2") in
Albuquerque this summer, a Blackfoot speaker told us what the prefixes we
call "pronouns" (looking for them through our Latin Grammar len) in
Blackfoot really are from their point of view: there's no 'me' -- only a
coming toward or going away from (me). How could we have listened to them
so badly for centuries? All NPs are optional.

So instead of simply "verb-dominated," I'd take it further to
"relationship/process-oriented" in order to have even more fun. 

And since there are no objects per se, let's make it out of kinesthetic
roots which pay attention to animate motion and relationship, so we can
create new words on the fly to capture the nuances of events, and locate
all this in an animate universe. And -- oh! -- let's not forget to
substitute manifesting and intensifying for our parochial Euro-concept of

Now, given that worldview, which is also inclusive rather than exclusive
of the rest of Nature, what would "linguistics" look like? For sure it
would have a larger-than-human focus on its subject matter, language,
showing what we share with other Life as well as what is unique about
us. Its preoccupation would be "diving for roots" -- linguistically,
epistemologically, and ontologically. Especially because each and every
statement would have to obey the inexorable grammatical requirement of
validity markers -- HOW do you know what you're stating? You experienced
it? heard about it? common knowledge? dreamed it? thought it up? etc. 

My, my! How different linguistics conferences and writings would be then!!

> (Just imagine how different it would be if one could translate a
> linguistic notion, say 'word', into a less nominalised language:
> perhaps 'sounds' word together in order to mean. Or perhaps the
> concept 'word' itself is culturally biased as we expect words to refer
> to 'things' outside!) More generally, is our linguistics today a
> 'nominalised' science of language? Are ALL linguistic 'things'
> necessarily 'things'? Does it make any sense to have a less nominal-
> ised science of language? If yes, is science universal or culture-
> bound? If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible'
> than others?

We already know from The Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Hoax that the real
answer to how many "words" for snow Yupik has is either the simple three
Boas said they had or three thousand, depending crucially on how you
define what constitutes a distinct "word" in languages replete with a
plethora of prefixes, suffixes, and especially infixes. 

So you've chosen carefully, Prof. Lofti, since "word" is already a hotly
contested part of our professional vocabulary to some, not at all to

Is "science" (of language or anything else) "universal or culture-bound?
If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible' than
others?" So provocative! If we delete all our nouns from linguistics, is
there anything coherent left? Does our nominophilia rule our thinking
about language? Are "root-y" language/culture groups just left out of the
loop if they don't value talking in nouns?

What does "science" mean? Diving for roots it means "knowing," but in
cultural terms it describes a phase of European intellectual rigor which
rewards linear thinking over whole-brain thinking. Seen that way, there is
no science except the true Western European version; everyone else is just
on the way to being Science. Funny that linguists fell for this, given the
fact that our brand of science comes from Panini in India. Oh, well, it's
all Aryan at bottom, I guess. 

But what of non-Aryan sciences, such as astrology, whose principles of
observation, correlation, and prediction, along with the use of math, gave
rise to our version of science (Newton and other founding fathers were
astrologers) yet is disdained and called "unscientific"? What of cultures
whose languages have no equals-sign copulas and don't value nouns -- are
they hopelessly beyond the pale of ever even potentially becoming
"scientific" or do they have their own version of "science" which we have
completely overlooked for centuries because of our True Science lens? Are
only thingy languages science-compatible for our brand of 'thing'uistics?

warm regards, moonhawk

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