LINGUIST List 11.1932

Thu Sep 14 2000

Disc: Linguisics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Kenneth Allen Hyde, Re: 11.1929, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Message 1: Re: 11.1929, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Date: Thu, 14 Sep 2000 00:29:59 -0400 (EDT)
From: Kenneth Allen Hyde <kennyUDel.Edu>
Subject: Re: 11.1929, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

On Thu, 14 Sep 2000, The LINGUIST Network wrote:

> the speakers specifically of Algonkian languages say they can talk all
> day long and never utter a single noun.

I'm not going to argue with this, because I'm sure that it's quite true
that this is what native speakers of these languages report. One question
that does immediately leap to mind, however, is whether there is a reason
to accept this report at face value? Does anyone have actual corpora of
the appropriate data, and has anyone done the necessary analysis and
coding to verify this report? After all, if there is one thing that
sociolinguists have shown over and over again, it is that people tend to
over-report language behavior that they value, and under-report behavior
that is stigmatized.

But what I wanted to bring up was not this argument, but rather the issue
of nouns and verbs, and other things, which seems to be a the heart of the
discussion. Both sides seem to be discussing noun-oriented languages and
verb-oriented languages and the concepts of nouns and verbs without making
the terminology precise. One side says "oh, nouns are things in language"
and the other side says "oh, nouns are only things in linguistic
analyses," but both sides continue to talk about these so-called things.
Verbs, of course, get the same treatment. 

Let's be a little more precise. We are actually talking about several
different levels of experience. There is the "real world" level, which is
the world around us which comes to us, moment by moment, as a vast
multi-sensory experience/perception event. There is the "language" level,
which consists of various mental "objects" that are, in part, created by
our categorization of the "real world" as well as the systems that process
these objects. Also, there is the "linguistics" level, which is a
metalanguage level where we describe and talk about the objects and
systems of language. Mind you, these are not the only levels to worry
about, but they are probably the most important for the current discussion
and will do for going along with. Also, I won't, for this discussion, get
into any of the mediations and interpenetrations between the various

On one level (the "real world" one), of course, "nouns" do not exist. A
rock is not a noun, nor is it a verb, nor any other category of language.
It is simply something that exists and which is part of our perceptible
world. On the language level, we may have a mental object that consists
of our categorical perception of the "real world" rock. This object is
processed by the systems of our language in various ways. Even on this
level, it is not clear that the term "noun" really has any meaning. There
are simply language objects, and system. It is only at the metalinguistic
level of describing language, that the term "nouns" takes on any reality,
and even here, it's a very fluid reality indeed.

I think that we are deceived by our metalanguage into thinking that there
is some abstract and ideal distinction between nouns and verbs (or other
parts of speech). In the real world, the perception event of "rock" has
no language-related features. Those are entirely of our own manufacture
and application. My own experience with linguistic description (working
in such diverse language families as Romance and Western Austronesian)
suggests that the metalinguistic reality of nouns and verbs (or any other
part of speech) is language specific. In some languages, there is a
distinction. In others, there may not be (I am particularly thinking of
David Gil's work on Indonesian dialects here). Where there is a
distinction, it is made arbitrarily on a language-specific basis.

Now, I don't work on Native American languages (right now, at least
*grin*), but from what the various participants in this discussion have
said, it seems like an alternative analysis is possible. Rather than
speaking of noun-oriented languages and verb-oriented languages, it seems
like we could simply say that some languages (such as English, or French)
set the noun/verb distinction fairly close to the middle of the static-
dynamic perception event continuum. Other languages, such as the
Athabaskan languages, might be said to set the noun/verb distinction near
the static end, resulting in a language where most perception events are
encoded by language objects that we label verbs in our metalanguage. NB:
I am using the static/dynamic description for the sake of exposition only.
It is quite possible that other labels may be more relevant for specific

Oh, one point, since this was also at the heart of the debate, is that a
linguistic metalanguage that was based on a soi-disant "verb-oriented"
language would not necessarily be better than one that was based on a
"noun-oriented" language. I personally would expect that there would
still be a tendency to grant concepts from the metalanguage more "reality"
than they actually have. In other words, there would still be the
tendency to think that terms of the metalanguage were features of the
"objects" and systems of the language level, or even the perception events
of the "real world" level. These conflations and confusions would be
different than the ones that we find in some of our own linguistic theory,
but I doubt that there would be any fewer of them. =)

> How could it train me for languages that shuffle 80
> kinesthetic/relationship roots to create new words on the fly -- more
> verby than nouny, where one word can also be a full sentence

Conversely, how could training in such a language prepare someone to
analyse and describe languages that "shuffle" thousands of roots and
affixes to generate new words, where each word has very clear nominal,
verbal, or other features that change depending on the morphological
composition? Equally poorly, or equally well (depending on your
pessimism/optimism orientation).

> The map is not the territory. Nouns do not exist in languages

"Noun" is a metalinguistic term which is useful when talking about
languages. This doesn't mean that nouns don't exist, just that we have to
recognize that their only reality is of our own making (and is arbitrary).
Perhaps it would be better to say that something exists and we choose to
call that something "nouns."

> I'm not sure how to characterize without offending you the thinking style
> which Native Americans find offensive -- nay, childish, if truth be
> known.

Perhaps you are looking for the distinction between focusing on the "real
world" level versus focusing on the "language" level? In other words, one
style (which some people call "right-brained" thinking) attends to the
non-categorized perception events while another style attends to
categories of events. Both styles, of course, have their advantages and
disadvantages. My instinct would be to say that those people who attend
to the non-categorized perception events will probably be more likely to
notice subtle interrelations between event moments, but less likely to
generalize. On the other hand, the people who attend to the categorized
perceptions will be more likely to recognize broad general patterns, but
may miss the fine-detail connections. Hopefully, as linguists we will all
bring a balanced approach, using both styles of thinking to develop our
descriptions and models of language. =)

> the combination of no nouns and no copulas, which makes hash out of
> Western logic, Western monocausal deterministic science, etc.

Why would the lack of nouns in any language (or group of languages) have
any bearing on the validity of logic as a tool, or on the scientific
method (which was never "monocausal" except when it was dominated by
religion and became addicted to the "prime urge" idea)? Neither logic nor
science says that nouns must exist (nor verbs, for that matter). Of
course, if you start from one or more false premises, you might construct
a logical argument that "proves" that nouns are a necessary condition for
language, but that doesn't mean the logic is wrong, simply that the
premises were.

Kenneth Allen Hyde 
Univ. of Delaware 
Dept. of Linguistics 

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