LINGUIST List 11.1965

Mon Sep 18 2000

Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. bwald, Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)
  2. bwald, Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)

Message 1: Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)

Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2000 03:39:29 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)

I couldn't stop thinking about the issues I started in my first response to
Moonhawk, esp about language type and culture as independent entities.
There is a recurrent proposal that small-group languages tend to develop or
preserve complex synthetic or inflectional properties, an early typological
issue, complex (in word structure) as opposed to "isolating" languages.
English (among other Western IE) as opposed to the classical IE languages
is sometimes cited as evidence, to which Russian is countered, similarly,
Chinese as opposed to Tibetan, etc. In any case, the truth of the
correlation between type of language and type of culture depends on what
kind of typology of language is at issue. This has been touched on in
ensuing discussion with regard to nouny vs. verby languages, with negative
results, I think. That is, type of culture is not predictable from this
particular typology, at least to the extent that non-Western cultures are
of all types, regardless of their difference from Western culture, while
the focus of initial discussion particularly contrasted Western with
non-Western culture (esp various Amerind cultures). Well, OK. But it is a
side-issue, because it does not really come to grips with the Whorfian
"world-view" issue, which, I suppose, is not easily deducible from material
(and ?performed?) culture, but somehow (?only?) from the language that
culture uses. That's a difficult problem because of the danger of
circularity. And, of course, it's not what Moonhawk is suggesting. He
suggests that there are behavioural consequences to worldviews -- and who
would deny that? But I continue to wonder if anthropologists who entertain
Whorfianism, in particular, associate language and culture too closely,
because they learn so much about a culture from the language -- which is
not the same thing as learning about the culture from the TYPE of language.
Again the problem is what typology is under consideration. Traditionally,
Whorfianism got a boost in mainstream anthropology through the analysis of
kinship system TYPES, because those types often indicated differences in
what corresponding cultures made of the social relationships among
biological relatives (with culture-dependent implications for adoption into
a family or larger units, so that the issue may start "objectively" with
biology but it doesn't end there). So by abstraction we get the notion
that any TYPE of language MIGHT reflect something about the culture.
That's where our problem of nouny vs. verby languages begins, and if we can
solve it at all we will have to solve it on a case by case basis. So back
to the issue at hand. And I add that the issue is becoming more manageable
as specific linguistic examples have been introduced and discussed, with
interesting results in revealing different concepts of "language",
"meaning" and what-not, e.g., that in nature rocks are neither nouns or
verbs. As Ken Hale said, we impose those categories on references to them.
But then again that's the issue. And BTW what do we mean when we say that
a root is either a noun or a verb? As we've noted for English, it doesn't
mean much. I suppose we indentify English "rock" (in the appropriate
meaning) with a noun because IN PRACTICE it is usually realised as a noun,
and then "stone" because we assume that the verb is (?was) derived from the
noun, still the more frequent use. And then for "sleep", some can't decide
on a prime label and others might suppose VERB where impressions don't
suggest a priority of one use over the other -- and maybe because verbs are
so "central" and the stereotype of the noun as a "thing" may favour
categorisation of a root as a V when it is not a stereotypical "thing".
Now, here I'm talking about how linguists not make analytical decisions,
not that they necessarily have to do with how speakers "regard" them. Of
course, if we find that speakers with brain lesions that affect their
recall, comprehension or whatever of nouns but not verbs have difficulty
finding certain items then we have independent evidence for an analytical
decision we may make, e.g., maybe they can't talk about "man" but only "man
the boats", whereas speakers who have the same lesion but a verby language
can still talk about "man". But I still suggest that that does not help us
draw any conclusions about worldview such as it has been discussed up to
now. It only shows what we are already taking for granted, that languages
differ by type -- well, additionally that these have storage consequences
in neural networks, but not necessarily at the level of complexity that
neural networks control a worldview.
>Well, the topic is rich. Let me control myself to respond to some
>specific points made, mainly by Moonhawk, passing over the debate with
>Larry Trask, where I see a cultural conflict between the two with
>occasional implications for linguistics as a culture, but which I do not
>have the stamina to pursue now.
>First one point to a statement by Ahmad Lofti which clarifies the
>direction of the discussion between me and Moonhawk. Ahmad writes:
>>unfamiliar grammatical means to say what they want to say.
>This implies that you can conceptualise and create meaning independent-
>ly of language: you first think of meaning, then you put it into words
>depending upon the type of language you speak, and then BANG! You ex-
>press yourself with nouns and verbs or whatever you find around.
>The truth is that the very concepts you form are influenced by how
>others (including your predecessors) have decided to view the world.
>For the English, one and the same event is expressed as 'it's raining'
>while the Persian-speakers see the same event as 'The rain is coming'.
>Here Persian is even more nouny/thingy than English.
>The first point is a really good and crucial point. My only answer is
>that with respect to my example of optioinality of pluralisation in, say,
>Chinese, I do not see that that can plausibly argued to affect worldview
>of one vs. many "things". Now, the Chinese counter-system is another
>matter, because it indeed group things in a certain way which varies from
>one language to another, and may affect our view of the things referred
>to. It's no different from (male) English speakers using "she" to refer
>to boats, cars or various other machines, exhibiting a kind of affection
>that resonates with the sexual overtones of "she" applied to women, or
>whatever image of women such a speaker may associate with the application
>of "she" to machines. So I do not dismiss the influence of language on
>worldview, inasmuch as, as Ahmad observed about predecessors, such
>attitudes and language use come from predecessors and have cultural
>implications that very much channel basic instincts into "worldviews". My
>suggestion was more concrete. It was how do we know nouny vs. verby is
>not like pluralisation as an optional vs. an obligatory grammatical
>phenomenon, where wordview is not involved, rather than like "she" in
>reference to machines or possibly a particular variant of a counter
>So Ahmad is right to ask for clarification, and to question whether
>conceptualisation and creation of meaning is independent of language. I'm
>still thinking about that, because, as I said, I don't think it is in some
>cases, and I'm not sure how it works in other cases, such as nouny vs.
>But then second point starting with "the truth is..." is what we in the
>trade call BALD ASSERTION. It seems to do the abstraction thing I
>mentioned earlier, by tacitly assuming that if we can demonstrate or at
>least plausibly argue for the influence of language on worldview in some
>cases, then we can assume it for all cases; the typical problem of
>generalising and using inductive logic. But that is what we are exploring
>in this discussion with rerspect to N/V. A does not demonstrate or
>plausibly argue for N/V. The implications of the difference between "it's
>raining" and "rain is coming" (literal translation into English changes
>English interpretation to "it's gonna rain", not intended, I assume) is
>not clear for a difference in worldview (to choose a more specific term
>than conceptualisation), only for a different grammatical strategy for
>saying the same thing -- across languages. Beyond that, all I can see is
>that using "rain is coming" for "it's raining" rather than for "it's gonna
>rain" sounds like a Farsi speaker talking English, with no more specific
>implications than being a Farsi speaker would otherwise evoke.
>>For instance in Sahaptin (Nez Perce/Yakima -- a people with whom Sapir had
>>a close relationship, staying with them for many months of the year; they
>>even remember Whorf visiting with him one time, with an episode of
>>dope-smoking), even something like what gets translated as "Mother Earth"
>>is more like "gently supporting underneath mocassin [foot-covering]",
>>according to speaker Lloyd Pinkham.
>Good. Certainly reflecting a point of view, if not worldview in general.
>In the chicken-egg problem I'm inclined to view such things as the culture
>using the language to express a particular point of view. The egg comes
>first, laid by archaeopteryx, and the culture comes first deciding on this
>expression for the earth (perhaps the surface of the earth in particular,
>I'm just guessing). We learn more about the culture than the language
>from the example. I suppose the grammatical context in Sahaptin
>determines whether the English translation is adequate to suggest a
>participial phrase rather than a nominal, i.e., "(the thing that) supports
>gently under the moccassion', i.e., the thing you walk on and isn't
>covered with obstacles. In this context, I recall Bloomfield's mention of
>a Menominee name 'he sits among six' (or some other number). I assumed a
>cultural reference that has meaning for Menominees, like Quintus for the
>fifth son would have cultural implications for ancient Romans, rather than
>simply display a lack of imagination in naming practices. But to get back
>to the grammatical point, the Menominee name is translated as a sentence,
>or clause. That's common in a variety of languages across the world, even
>such things as "(s/he) was born during a/THE famine". But, as Moonhawk
>anticipates in a later passage, the English translation may be misleading
>from the point of view of English -- or even such names as Quintus, a
>nominal in Latin. Thus, we lose nothing of the cultural reference if we
>translate it into English by a nominalisation, e.g., a relative clause,
>"(the one WHO) sits among six", etc. The relativisation makes such names
>less bizarre for the English speaker, but does not really affect the
>insight they get into "worldview". That is, it's not the grammatical
>construction that carries this piece of worldview; it's the content.
>>Or "iyeska" in Lakota, meaning "mixed-blood" if you're talking about
>>someone's ancestry/culture, "translator" if about language, and "shaman"
>>if about the sacred. But they're still talking about the underlying
>>process of going between in each case, focusing on dancing not
>>dancers. Now it's true you could in some sense recover the noun IF you
>>know the context. Often, however, this is not culturally desired except
>>for teaching purposes, then dropped.
>Now that gets back to the culture, as usual. "translator" may suggest
>that the "mixed-blood" is a potential cultural bridge, even mediator,
>between Lakota and the other culture. It's the classification thing
>again, precipitated by the culture and THEN expressed in the language.
>You can see where my further thinking about the relation of culture to
>language got me, even before I read M's message.
>A later comment
>>And the bitch of it is, even *verb* is a noun! ;-) Only joking, since that
>>obviously doesn't hold for me and my verbing -- damn! still a noun! ;-)
>Of course, but then appreciate that *verb* originally meant its cognate
>*word*. Its specialisation of meaning shows at least one IE group's
>appreciation of the primacy of the verb over the noun.
>>> 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.
>>Point taken. But what if it's just "Rained." and "Happened."? What if
>>there's no reification OR nominalizing in daily talk?
>Doesn't really matter. It takes more argument to counter the view that
>"it" is just a "dummy element" and that when English developed this
>feature of its current grammar from the previous one which allowed
>"rained" that reflects a change in the worldview of its speakers. There's
>a little more to say here because I think "something" is a replacement of
>a wh- word "what" indicating an indefinite. So even before "dummy it"
>arose "happened" took a subject. Again the language that allows the verb
>alone does not require whatever distinction there is between "it" and
>"something" (or "what" as an indefinite). The message is the same.
>Worldview is not obvious.
>>I remind everyone of Whorf's Hopi example of "rehpi" -- flashed! No light,
>>lightning, or it involved (making ours look like grammatical fictions),
>>just a bare predicate, the way we saw with "Dancing with Wolves" and
>>"Stands With Fist" (probably better Dances-wolfing and Stands-fisting or
>>some such); what comes after the initial (subjectless) verb looks like
>>prepositions with object NPs in the translations, but can be just
>>kinesthetic roots acting as infixes and suffixes in various Amerind
>English allows wolf-dancing (> wolf-dance verb), etc. "flashed" is not an
>adequate translation for "light" unless only for "a flash of light".
>Whether the apparent past inflection suggests a view of the transitoriness
>of light or fails to capture the more general meaning of the inflection at
>issue might be a matter of contention. I can see here the temptation to
>rely on a speaker judgment that interpretation UPON REFLECTION indicates a
>temporary state by association with the use of the inflection with
>contexts where pastness is understood, but in a gentle way I am
>reiterating Trask's point that this may be post-hoc philosophising by a
>speaker noticing a grammatical difference between Hopi and English, and
>not an indication of a difference in worldview in normal unreflecting use
>of the language. It's a difficult point to resolve. The data are
>important, but so far insufficient.
>>I agree. And "the flag" is a static representation of all that at once
>>(except when "the wind" sends it flagging) -- emblematic, perhaps
>>prototypically so. Oh, plus it encodes a weird (to Natives) assumption
>>that one can "own" patches of our Earth Mother who nourishes us.
>The real point of the flagging observation occurred to me later. It's the
>nominalising the piece of land as "property". It doesn't change my
>previous considerations, but it brought to mind a news item that some
>company is selling pieces of the moon, and the question was "on whose
>authority"? The news item questioned whether the deeds would ever be
>honoured, but did not mention criminal proceedings being initiated against
>the instigators of this farce, if it is, I hope, a farce.
>Getting back to the point I discussed above for Ahmad, I had written:
>>> 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.
>Now M responds:
>>May I, in casting doubt on your above opinion, offer myself as an example
>>to the contrary, also making myself vulnerable to professional ridicule?
>>During the early '70s, I spent 4 years solid on the Northern Cheyenne
>>Reservation as linguist and administrator for a federal bilingual/-
>>bicultural program. At the end I'd crafted a pretty decent alphabet and
>>writing system, and could pronounce anything I could write like an elder
>>-- 'cause I worked mainly with elders. But -- here it comes, and list-
>>member Wayne Leman can attest to this because I trained him into Cheyenne
>>-- I couldn't generate appropriate Cheyenne sentences except on the most
>>simplistic level, and often getting a piece wrong! <blush> After four
>>years of doing mainly langage work! Spanish, Latin, and German -- piece of
>>cake! But Cheyenne ... ! I didn't know at that time that Cheyenne Nouns
>>were just temporary fictions for translation purposes, and so voraciously
>>translated noun-filled Algonkian wordlists into Cheyenne for dictionary
>>and learning purposes.
>This gets back to what I was saying above about "he sits with six" (uh I
>think it was actually seven), etc. As with any languages, for learning
>how to speak, time is better spent listening to unreflecting speech,
>speaking, getting corrected and continuing to speak. That's the only way
>to learn to speak IDIOMATICALLY, and it's very important. Beside
>that, the grammatical distance between Cheyenne and English makes it more
>difficult to get how the grammatical strategies are used idiomatically
>than for many other languages, even non-Western ones. This is a relevant
>observation not an accusation since M had a job to do. We see that under
>the constraints of having a job to do, a savvy linguist can fall into the
>procrustean trap, and that goes for all linguists. It's something we try
>constantly to guard against, but with no hope of total success until the
>job of linguistics is finished -- now and forever.
>Much more needs to be said about idiom than I can say -- or even
>understand. I'll just give the example that English made me want to use a
>substitute for "before" in saying such things as "he gets up and smokes
>BEFORE he even washes his face" in Swahili. And there is a Swahili
>equivalent for "before" that satisfies that urge for the English speaker.
>But I quickly noticed that Swahili speakers most commonly say "he gets up
>and and smokes, he hasn't even washed his face (yet)". That's the idiom,
>and it has larger implications for the difference between how English and
>Swahili mark clause relations, aspect vs. subordinating conjunctions.
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Message 2: Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)

Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2000 03:39:41 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1921, Disc: Linguistics & Nominalising Languages (long)

>Prt 2 of my further thoughts to Pt 2 of Moonhawk's messages.
>>All glossaries of scientific disciplines are nearly exclusively populated
>>with nouns -- for a starter. And just because it comes out as "the
>>dancing" when discussing it in English doesn't mean that's the case in the
>>Native languages I'm discussing. I'm trying to focus on animate processing
>>and relationshipping as prime, with all objects being grammatical
>Yes the starter is facilitated by the ease with which English nounifies,
>and then, as I mentioned in my original response, how scientists avail
>themselves of that strategy to use a shorthand to refer to phenomena. I
>won't deny reification, but I'll put it in the eye of the beholder, rather
>than in a worldview necessitated by the language or the strategy used. As
>noted earlier, Hale agreed that objects are grammatical fictions in the
>sense of the discussion here. Again, it's the effect of those grammatical
>fictions on worldview that is at issue, not the objects referred to
>I had said:
>>> 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.
>M responds
>>Not so fast -- that's a misinterpreting of my "optional," which I hope
>>I've cleared up by now. While it may be optional structurally, its use is
>>culturally proscribed to be outside of daily talk -- so it is certainly
>>NOT recoverable in that sense, according to the Natives, who themselves
>>must occasionally interrupt for clarification.
>It's not clear whether we're dealing with idiom or grammar here. It seems
>idiom. Don't mention the objects unless you think you have to; and it
>might be insulting to mention them if that presupposes that the listener
>is too stupid to understand without overt mention -- or is it repeated
>overt mention? It becomes a matter of judgment, just like what kids have
>to learn in English who start off a complaint with "I can't find it!" --
>can't find what? In English listeners often get confused about pronominal
>references when there are a lot of he's and she's in the discourse.
>Sometimes they don't know they're confused and leave with the wrong
>impression. Sometimes they ask for clarification, "wait! he, him, is he
>Jack or Ralph?" In the language at issue in the example I suppose the
>request for clarification would be simply "who?" or "what?"
>>> 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.
>>In societies living in what Owen Barfield called "original
>>participation," they WERE kinesthetically reliving that *teaching*
>>("myth" has conflicting meanings) and thus directly experienced the events
>>related. This is what it means to speak a kinesthetic- rather than
>>visually-based language. Sahaptinn speakers sing an ancestor's song and by
>>so doing kinesthetically relive looking East from atop the Rockies and
>>seeing the Great Inland Lake that disappeared 6-8000 years or so ago. I
>>can understand the mysery.
>That refines what I said about evidential being a matter of belief in such
>cases. I take "myth" in the usual sense as not directly experienced in
>the sense of "eye-witness", but we're playing with what I meant by direct
>experience here. It is certainly cultural rather than linguistic that
>speakers in current Western societies are not so readily believed when
>they claim to have been visited by Jesus or flying saucers or whatever.
>But that is not to deny, even in such a culture, that such claimants have
>had a religious or mystical experience which for them is real. It is
>Sahaptin culture that facilitates its religious experiences, not least by
>using and probably even encouraging the "eye-witness" evidential for such
>experiences. Among the religious in mainstream Western culture, religious
>experience may be accepted but not expected on a daily basis. The
>difference may be that the religious mainstream sees God not religious
>experience as inscrutable.
>I said:
>>> 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.
>M responds:
>>Yes indeed. When it comes to survival and life-saving information,
>>however, it might be more crucial to know HOW someone knows what they're
>>telling you.
>Because of faith-healing, etc that does not necessarily remove us from the
>preceding discussion of religious experience. However, I get the idea the
>point is more about something like "don't go there now. It's too
>dangerous" or even "smoking causes serious risk of lung cancer, heart
>disease, etc." It's not clear that under practical circumstances an
>evidential system has direct survival benefits for listeners. It might
>even work to disadvantage if in fact smoking does cause such risk but the
>speaker is constrained to report this as hearsay because s/he heard it on
>TV but hasn't gone over the research reports -- and the addressee "wants"
>to smoke, i.e., is addicted. So evidentials can cut both ways, e.g.,
>"smoking's bad for your health", "who says?", "people who know", "yeah,
>but that's not you." That conversation probably means "I don't want to
>hear it" rather than "I don't believe it", but no matter.
>Later M comments:
>>We would find few nouns in an Indigenous Science
>>glossary, were one to exist. (How's that for a safe statement?!) ;-)
>It's a safe statement if the language doesn't have any nouns. Otherwise,
>we can coin as many nouns as we feel like (it). It's still the same
>argument, because I'm not convinced that we label phenomena with nouns aor
>by any other means make any difference if we know what we're talking
>about. As some linguists including Karl Teeter noted, it is doubtful that
>there is any language without nouns, if we recognise nouns as an
>organising strategy for discourse and not as an inherent property of
>particular lexical roots. But that takes us from arguing about worldview
>to arguing about how to analyse any and all languages. When the two
>considerations meet we can make progress, in my view. As a linguist, I'd
>like to better understand the issues involved in what linguistics means to
>capture by the concept "noun" before I start entertaining thoughts about
>what effect that might have on worldview. All my discussion here has
>another issue in mind, getting a proper perspective on the difference
>between language and "culture". We take the difference for granted, but
>we're having difficulty disentangling their interconnections.
>In the best of worlds I would see this discussion splitting into two. One
>is what's a noun? The other is when is language not culture and culture
>not language?
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