LINGUIST List 11.1947

Fri Sep 15 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Chris Harvey, Noun vs. Verb language discussion

Message 1: Noun vs. Verb language discussion

Date: Fri, 15 Sep 2000 16:14:40 -0500
From: Chris Harvey <>
Subject: Noun vs. Verb language discussion

T�nisi �kwa, Sh�:kon.

I'm entering the discussion of Native North American "verby" vs. "nouny" languages
somewhat late. Having studied Algonquian and Iroquoian languages languages, I
would like to add my voice to the frey.

On the question of whether an Algonquian language like Cree has and actively uses
nouns, the answer is a definitive 'yes'. As was stated earlier in the discussion,
Alg. languages are well known for their animate vs. inanimate noun 'genders'.
Nouns such as 'woman' iskw�w, 'bear' maskwa, or 'rock' asin�, are all classified by
the language as animate, and consequently take the -k plural ending (eg. iskw�wak,
women), as well as determine animate gender agreement with the verb. Inanimate
nouns like 'shoe' maskisin, 'book' masinahikan, or 'wood' mistik, have different
verb agreement, and a different plural -a ending (eg. maskisina, shoes). Many
nouns in Cree are just that, nouns. The word maskwa (bear) is not derived from a
verb root. The word for book, masinahikan, should also be regarded as a noun,
although its stem is masinahik�, meaning to write. This is no different than
English getting the noun 'visualisation' from the verb 'visualise'.

Looking through a few Cree language texts, it ought to be said that spoken (then
transliterated) Cree doesn't appear to use nouns as often as literary English would
appear to. This is typical of oral discourse in any language (including English),
because the both the speaker and the audience know from context which objects,
people, places, etc. are being refered to. Languages keep track of who's doing
what to whom by using agreement or pronouns, and Cree uses both, including an
extensive catalogue of demonstrative pronouns (eg. this one, those ones, that one
right there, etc.) which are both grammatically and conceptually nounish. Thus a
concept that is described verbishly in Cree, such as 'bananas' k�-w�kisicik,
literally something like 'the ones they are bent', could be referred to later in
the discourse by a demonstrative pronoun. When Cree has fully developed a literary
style, I would expect the use of nouns to increase.

In an Iroquoian language such as Mohawk, the use of verbish constructions where
English would use a noun is even more pronounced. Virtually all of the vocabulary
for objects or people is built by verb roots. Even words like 'man' r�n:kwe can be
translated as 'he is a person'. To make the plural, change the pronominal prefix
from 3sg to 3pl. Yet even here, there is a relatively small group of roots which
are distinctively grammatical nouns, 'Dog' �:rhar is different than 'man' in that
it does not take a pronominal prefix, and may not incorporate (a sort of
compounding) into a verb complex as verbish roots do. Yet the idea of 'noun' is
certainly a productive Mohawk concept, as the language has on occasion borrowed
nouns into the language where the traditional vocabulary lacked terminology (eg.
akar�:t - cake, mat�n:t - my aunt, from French ma tante). If Mohawk lacked nouns
altogether, such borrowings would be impossible.

All of this being said, there is a certain validity to the argument that an
Algonquian language is more verby than French or English, meaning that a Cree
speaker would find that verbs are the more expressive or powerful category in the
language. This can be exemplified by the M�tis language Mechif of Western Canada,
a mixed French-Cree language. When the Michif language was forming, it was able to
draw upon the linguistic resources of both French and Cree, and chose to take its
verbs from Cree and its nouns from French, getting the best of both worlds.

Niawen'k�:wa Chris Harvey
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue