LINGUIST List 11.1921

Wed Sep 13 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. bwald, Re: 11.1919, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages
  2. iatsko, RE: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: Re: 11.1919, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 04:13:44 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1919, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

As always I enjoyed and was stimulated by Monnhawk's response to Ahmad
Lofti's questions about the cultural-conceptual (and perhaps cognitive)
implications of the differences between languages that favor nouns or verbs
as grammatical means of expression. However, I think he held back unduly
in some cases in order to make his own points. Thus, where Ahmad observes:

>> 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.

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

No doubt he had in mind such verbs as "photograph". It is unclear what
semantic constraints English has on the conversion of nouns to verbs.
Thus, there appears to be nothing in English grammar to preclude
'camera'-ing, 'cold'-ing or even "LINGUIST"-ing. Conversely, speakers can
have "a cough" and maybe even "the sneezes". It is not, then, anything
within the grammar of English itself that prevents the unattested examples
or constructs, only how speakers conventionally use that grammar -- which
does not detract from the interest of the question. It just puts the
question in a different perspective -- and perhaps biases the answer toward
the culture determining how the language is used, if that -- rather than
the (structure of the) language straitjacketing the culture.

Ahamd continues:
>> 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.

Moonhawk's response to the main point is:

>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.

Here Moonhawk lets pass an inaccurate stereotype of what a noun is (cf. a
noun is the name of a person, place or thing). Potentially, and maybe even
in practice, there are at least as many nouns that refer to processes and
such-like activities as to "more static" entities. English allows that by
the free nominalisation of verbs by -ing, and in the Latinate vocabulary
-ion and other such suffixes appended to verbs, hence "explosion",
"collision", "talking" (beside "talk"), etc etc. Just how static
nominalised verbs are depends largely on the context in which they are
used. Certainly no conceptual or cognitive difference should be attributed
to the English nominalisation "there was dancing (going on)" as a
translation of the verb-al "it/there was danced" in other Germanic
languages. Similarly, the noun "something" in "something happened" does
not show a tendency to REIFY, as opposed to NOMINALISE. Similarly, "WHAT
happened?" answer: "it rained" or whatever. If anything is more "static"
than verbs in English (among other nouny languages) it is adjectives, not
verbs. And even there, nothing apart from specific context of use leads
hearers to suppose that adjectival qualities ascribed to whatever are
permanent. Hence 'it's getting dry' as easily as 'it IS dry', and 'it's
drying' (more easily than 'it has gotten dry' for 'it's (already) dry').
OK, 'it's reddening' rather than 'it's redding'. Surely that's of no

>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

It's not quite clear to me that using a verb "flag (the land)" would make
any difference. The consequences of claimed possession are proclaimed
rights to processes and activites, such as I can LIVE here, or PLANT here,
or whatever, and you CANnot. Whether a noun or verb is used to initiate
such processes is immaterial, and lost on no one, regardless of language.

Moonhawk goes on to observe

>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.

[langscape, good word!]

In passing, I call attention to three nominalisations which have no
reification implications, 'teaching', 'thinking', 'speaking' -- and then to
-ize (or -ise) as a way to make verbs out of nouns. With respect to
content, the difficulty speakers of non-nominalising language have learning
nominalising languages and vice-versa does not necessarily imply a
difference in conceptualisation, not to mention cognition, but simply using
unfamiliar grammatical means to say what they want to say. I don't see
this as different in kind from the difficulty speakers of East Asian
languages have in remembering to pluralise English nouns, where the plural
morpheme is not obligatory in those languages and most often understood
with mention.

Moonhawk becomes more enthusiastic when Ahmad asks:

>> 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.

Fine, if you want to focus on the dancing, another nominalisation without
reification. So far nothing justifies Ahmad's notion of a
'noun-dominated' theory/science of language. As far as I know all Western
theories of language make the Verb (looks like I reified) more central than
the Noun.
Moonhawk continues:

>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.

The term "optional" suggests that the NP referents are understood, and
simply do not have to be obligatorily expressed, not even by pronouns --
although it is not clear that the prefixes referred to do not function as
"pronouns", regardless of Latin. The more interesting case, as implied by
Moonhawk's interest in processes and activities, would be if the NP
referents did not even have to be understood. In that case, what are the
speakers talking about -- and how long could they really sustain a
conversation? That is a serious question if the topic of conversation is
about events or processes rather than "things".

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

I quote this to justify my characterisation of "Moonhawk's interest in
processes and activities" -- and I find it difficult to see how any
knowledgeable person could think that Western scientists, even linguists,
are less interested in that than anyone else, if they really understand
what they're DOing. [Perhaps that's the implication of M's further
remarks; see later comments]. I do not follow the point of his subsequent
remarks until we get to:

>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.

Here I think M has the obligatory evidential markers of many Amerind
languages in mind. In this case I agree that grammar may have a
determining effect on understanding, if not cognition, to the extent that
obligatorily requiring a choice among evidential options affects at least
the hearers's awareness of the evidential basis upon which a statement is
made. For example, if one must mark as "hearsay" rather than knowledge
from direct experience "Homer wrote the Iliad", one is aware of the level
of authority the speaker claims for the statement. Similarly, the
speaker's compulsion to claim a level of authority in selecting an
evidential marker probably makes him/her more aware of the different
sources and bases of such knowledge than is needed by the casualness which
English (among others) allows in making knowledge-based statements.
Against this is Sapir's observation that Takelma speakers tend to present
myths as if they directly experienced the events related. It is then a
matter of levels of belief and not specifically of experience. Of course,
some English speakers who say "Homer wrote the Iliad" may really believe
that too. For most speakers such a statement is no more than an expression
of conventional knowledge, and they have little interest in the truth of
statement beyond that. It would make little difference to them if it came
to light that somebody else wrote the Iliad, whether or not that person was
also named Homer.

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

Here, in my view, but probably not in M's, it does seem that he is saying
that linguists are not aware of what they are talking about. I have no
idea whether that's true or not; I only know that I can often translate
what they're saying into "phenomenological" terms, and get insights (I
think) in the process. That's good enough for me.

Behind the idea that linguists are not aware of the phenomenological basis
of their interests, I suspect the stereotype that linguistics and other
sciences reify phenomena and then take the reification seriously, as if the
main object of science is to reify phenomena and then lose sight of the
fact that the objects they have created are based on phenomena, and become
preoccupied with classifying the reifications. Linneas would be a
proto-type of this view of science, and the perception would confuse the
strategies scientists use to understand the relationships among phenomena
with the appearance of "static" classification -- classification of what?

Ahmad asks:
>> If yes, is science universal or culture-
>> bound? If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible'
>> than others?

As Moonhawk answers, the answer to the first question is that science, as
we understand it in this culture, is indeed culture-bound. It has
culturally derived and enforced norms. However, since science is a
prestigious activity he then takes a larger view and recognises that
Western science is one manifestation of a universal quest for knowledge,
not actively practiced by all individuals but no doubt by some individuals
in all cultures. I certainly agree with this. Furthermore, all culturals
take advantage of new knowledge when they find it useful -- or necessary.
Whether there is anything wrong with the constraints on Western science in
principle, rather than in practice, is another question that does not
surface in the discussion.

As for the second question, it should be clear that I do not see what that
has to do with different types of languages. Among less
'science-compatible' cultures we hear about in history are such ones as
Medieval Vatican culture, among others. (Here I think it is clear that
Ahmad intended the term 'science' in the usual narrowly Western sense.)
Certainly there was no inherent difference in the language of the culture
that burnt Giordano at the stake, or put Galileo under house arrest and the
language of such victims. To be fair though, the victimising culture did
not suppress these individuals for their scientific activities or thoughts,
but for their use of those thoughts to challenge the authority of the
dominant culture -- and so it goes on through the more recent American
"creationism" controversies, etc. The Spanish Inquisition attempt at total
mind control is a more extreme example, and cannot by no means be
attributed to the Spanish language. In sum, I see no evidence that
language type played any role in allowing one culture to reach the moon
before others, or that language rather than language-independent culture
made anyone want to. But I concede there is still room for debate here.

I am far from an anti-Whorfian, as my remarks on evidentials should bear
out. I wish more concrete examples of that sort were given -- and even
that one had been made explicit. I am simply objecting to inaccuracies
concerning the characterisation of nouns and nominalisation in "nouny"
languages. I end now by thanking Moonhawk for his stimulating and
provocative ideas, perhaps more provocative than he intended them to be. I
am familiar with some of his ideas from previous List discussions, and I
see from his latest offering that he has continued to think about them and
to further refine them. I hope that my comments are of further stimulation
to him, and to Ahmad, and all the other readers of this message. -- Benji
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Message 2: RE: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 16:00:54 +0200
From: iatsko <>
Subject: RE: Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Prof. Lofti touched upon an interesting specific feature of Indo-European
languages: their ability to use nominalized constructions. But it's clear
that the degree of nominalization varies among different languages. To
reveal factors determining the degree to which a language is nominalized can
be a subject of linguistic research. One of such factors, in my opinion, is
the use of the so-called complex predicate typical of English. Cf.: to cry -
to give a cry, to smoke - to have a smoke, to swim - to have a swim. A
momentaneous action expressed by the English nominalized structures is
rendered into Russian by verb prefixes. Cf.: to give a cry - vskriknut', to
have a swim - iskupat'sia. Thus, in this respect Russian is less nominalized
than English
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