Better late than never, I thought I’d talk today about the possibility of a language without nouns. Last time, I talked about a language without verbs, and delved into what exactly defines a part of speech. Here’s a quick recap:
- Parts of speech can be defined in a few ways: lexically, where a given root is only acceptable as one part of speech; syntactically, where a their location in the sentence and the words surrounding them are applied to the root, and there may be no lexical distinction involved; and morphologically, where a category of roots undergo a specific set of morphological processes.
- Nouns are content words, meaning they have a meaning that can exist independently of a sentence.
- Verbs and noun roots in English can in fact switch categories. You can bag your groceries by putting them in a bag, and rope you some cattle with a rope.
There have been several languages and language families put forward as lacking nouns. Tongan, Riau Indonesian, the Salishan languages of Oregon. In the case of Riau, it seems words are lexically underspecified–that is, they can be used in any category. In Salishan languages, you have what is often considered to have a verbal category, while not having a nominal one. So, the word for “dog” is actually a verb meaning “to be a dog” The same goes for being a man. One mans.
A question arises here: While “man”-ness is a verb syntactically and morphologically in Salishan languages, is it possible to argue that these “verbs” aren’t just nouns by another form? In the previous paragraph, I used the word “man” as a “verb” in English. Are such verbs in Salishan merely placeholders for a true noun? One difference in using verbs as opposed to nouns is the removal of the tedious “to be” constructions in English. “He is a man.” requires more words than “He mans”. That brings is back to the issue of the multiple definitions of a part of speech. Lexically, its reasonable to say a language with such constructions lacks nouns. Morphologically, if a root undergoes the same processes as words that are verbs, it’s reasonable to conclude it’s a verb. The only argument to be had in this case is syntactic. A predicate requires a verb. If a Salishan pseudo-verb can be a predicate all on its own, then doesn’t that imply it’s actually a bona fide verb? But verbs must be nominalized to become arguments of another verb, in which case you could argue they aren’t. Now, the truth is that a noun/verb distinction has never been 100% delineable, so I think it can be argued in good faith that these roots are truly verbs.
In which case, it’s much simpler to conclude that we can have a language without nouns than that we can have a language without verbs.
As far as methods to construct a noun-less grammar, we have:
- Stative verbs as in Salishan
- I don’t know? Any suggestions?