May 13, 2004

Nouns, verbs and adjectives

I am going to quibble with Steven Den Beste. (Steven, I don’t want to nitpick, my substantial response is two posts down – I want to make what I think is an interesting point of my own.)

Steven says:

Thus there are essential characteristics of the universe itself which are reflected in language. That's why I suspect that every human language contains nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Actually, adjectives are not necessary. Even in English we can say things like “red of cheek”, where “red” looks like a noun. In Hebrew, there are several verbs which express things that English expresses through adjectives: samahti (I was happy), esmah (I will be happy). In the present tense you can’t tell whether the word is an adjective or a verb: ani sameah (I am happy – in English you can tell it’s not a verb only because it would have to end in –ing). One can imagine a language where all adjectives are expressed as either nouns or verbs. According to The World’s Major languages, Tamil is one such language, having only nouns and verbs. (It is also true of many computer languages, as I point out in Objects and Services - Nouns and Verbs)

Adverbs though, as Steven said, are certainly not necessary. In Hebrew, one of the most common ways to express them is “with” + <noun>: higi`u b’hadraga – they arrived gradually, literally: they arrived with gradualness.

Grammatical categories such as noun, verb and adjective are not “essential characteristics of the universe” – they are essential characteristics of a particular language – the way a particular language models the universe.

However, I believe (in contrast to some) that there are “essential characteristics of the universe”, and the distinction between nouns and verbs might be one of them. I cannot imagine a language without this distinction, and I have tried. (If any reader can imagine one: I’d be grateful if you would tell me about it.)

UPDATE: Amritas says almost the same thing. It’s good to get confirmation from a linguist!

UPDATE: I can imagine a language with just nouns, no adjectives, and one verb: do. Then it would be like REST.

UPDATE: In Hausa, constructs like “red of cheek” are the regular way of expressing adjectives: fari-n zanee (white cloth), compare to kaaka-n yaaroo (grandfather of boy).

UPDATE: I just realized that all Hebrew verbs in the present tense behave exactly like adjectives. And like all Hebrew adjectives, they can be used as nouns. So is a Hebrew present participle a verb, adjective or noun? For example:

`oved `oved `oved – a working worker (male) works
`ovedet `ovedet `ovedet – a working worker (female) works
`ovdim `ovdim `ovdim – working workers (male) work
`ovdot `ovdot `ovdot – working workers (female) work
Posted by David Boxenhorn at May 13, 2004 04:37 PM
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The constructed language Lojban explicitly fuses nouns, verbs and adjectives, having just one category, the "predicate". It is an interesting grammatical experiment, though I think that most likely there is a noun/verb distinction inherent in human cognitive processes, whether or not any such distinction is inherent in the world itself.

I believe that the adjective-verb correspondence used to be even more developed in Hebrew than it is now. For example, I think that "tov" used to be a verb in every sense, prefix-conjugation ("future") "yitav", suffix-conjugation "tov" (probably "tovti", "tovta", etc.) Ma tovu ohalekha, Ya`akov....

Posted by: Adam at May 14, 2004 08:06 AM Permalink

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