Linguistics & Nominalising Languages
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
12 Sep 2000


Thank you so much, Prof. Lotfi, for bringing this most important point up for discussion.
[Ahmad R. Lotfi (11 Sep 2000)
Subject: New Discussion: Is our linguistics 'thing'uistics?

Dear Linguists,

Indo-European languages are known to have a strong tendency to nominalise: the speakers of such languages hunt for 'things' in their roundabout. Then people catch 'a cold' (they don't simply 'cold' as they cough or sneeze). You don't 'camera'. Instead, you take 'a picture' by 'your camera'. And right now, you are reading your messages on LINGUIST. They're not 'LINGUISTing you', nor you 'LINGUISTing' anything or anyone.

[Moonhawk]
These are excellent examples, though they could certainly be countered by a plethora of counterexamples.
[Ahmad]
Linguistic determinism presumably wants us to approach such a tendency as a part of our world view: nouns are typically more permanent and less dynamic than verbs. Then a nominalising language encourages one to view the world as more static and less transient than what it actually is.
[Moonhawk]
Instead of being my usual aggressive personality when it comes to this issue, demanding a source citation leading your "presum-"ing, I'll simply accept this as an accurate statement of the stereotyped position held by nobody as advanced by the critics of Benjamin Lee Whorf. That Whorf was no proponent of it is evident by his numerous references to non-deterministic (probabalistic) quantum physics and its relationship to concepts in linguistics. But I digress.

As to the main point re: nouns being more static than verbs -- I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'd go farther: linguistic societies (language/- culture dynamics) that excessively nounify are after control by fear.

Eddy Izzard has an Emmy-winning bit about flags: Western Europeans would plant a flag somehwere after coming onshore and claim the land for their sovereign. The Natives would say, "What do you mean you discovered this place? We live here." And the explorer would say, "Yes, but do you have a flag?!" At which point the Natives crumbled.

An easy way of picturing this issue is that nouns are simply snapshots of verbs -- slowed down and stripped of any relationships besides the ones dictated by the syntax -- and even below that to the number of NPs demanded or allowed by the verb itself in selectional restrictions (1-sleep, 2-hit, 3-give); in English, the minimum number is one whereas in many Native American languages the norm is zero in daily talk, from their accounts.

In such a langscape of non-nominalizing (except for teaching, then they're erased), nominalizing languages present challenges for thinking and speaking when learned as a second language.

[Ahmad]
Within the field of linguistics, we've been looking for an explanation/description of 'language' (something out there, or something (again 'something') inside). Even those conversationalists among us are still more concerned with 'speech' rather than 'speaking'. If linguistics were born in a less 'noun-dominated culture'(advocates of the doctrine of linguistic determinism assure us there are some),
[Moonhawk]
Whoa! I reject that label completely, as would Whorf were he still with us, yet I do indeed assure you and everyone else that I am accurately reporting THEIR claims to speak all day long without uttering a single noun as a usual event with no particular "trying to". And since any arbitrary splitting of the dynamic into separate "language" and "culture" is in the long run futile and to the detriment of both, I'm sure that what I described would also translate into a "noun-dominated culture."

In such cultures, fixity seems the answer to the everchanging flux of reality; in my relatives' cultures, "surfing the flux" would be more apt.

[Ahmad]
how different would our theories of language be? Is it ever possible to have a 'verb-dominated' theory/science of language?
[Moonhawk]
Wow -- bingo! Indigenous epistemologies make an entrance for discussion's sake! What, indeed, would, say, an indigenous linguistics look like? Take away the "nouns" and you're really removing the verb's mandatoriness for X-number of NPs -- so take away pronouns as well, focusing on the dancing rather thab the dancers.

At the Bohmian Science Dialogue ("The Language of Spiritualiy 2") in Albuquerque this summer, a Blackfoot speaker told us what the prefixes we call "pronouns" (looking for them through our Latin Grammar len) in Blackfoot really are from their point of view: there's no 'me' -- only a coming toward or going away from (me). How could we have listened to them so badly for centuries? All NPs are optional.

So instead of simply "verb-dominated," I'd take it further to "relationship/process-oriented" in order to have even more fun.

And since there are no objects per se, let's make it out of kinesthetic roots which pay attention to animate motion and relationship, so we can create new words on the fly to capture the nuances of events, and locate all this in an animate universe. And -- oh! -- let's not forget to substitute manifesting and intensifying for our parochial Euro-concept of "time".

Now, given that worldview, which is also inclusive rather than exclusive of the rest of Nature, what would "linguistics" look like? For sure it would have a larger-than-human focus on its subject matter, language, showing what we share with other Life as well as what is unique about us. Its preoccupation would be "diving for roots" -- linguistically, epistemologically, and ontologically. Especially because each and every statement would have to obey the inexorable grammatical requirement of validity markers -- HOW do you know what you're stating? You experienced it? heard about it? common knowledge? dreamed it? thought it up? etc.

My, my! How different linguistics conferences and writings would be then!!

{paren: [Mark A. Mandel: (13 Sep 2000)] Dan, I may be be obtuse or just slow on the pickup, but I'm having a problem telling here if / where you're exaggerating for humorous effect here. No offense intended; I mean this, too.}

[Ahmad]
(Just imagine how different it would be if one could translate a linguistic notion, say 'word', into a less nominalised language: perhaps 'sounds' word together in order to mean. Or perhaps the concept 'word' itself is culturally biased as we expect words to refer to 'things' outside!) More generally, is our linguistics today a 'nominalised' science of language? Are ALL linguistic 'things' necessarily 'things'? Does it make any sense to have a less nominal- ised science of language? If yes, is science universal or culture- bound? If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible' than others?
[Moonhawk]
We already know from The Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Hoax that the real answer to how many "words" for snow Yupik has is either the simple three Boas said they had or three thousand, depending crucially on how you define what constitutes a distinct "word" in languages replete with a plethora of prefixes, suffixes, and especially infixes.

So you've chosen carefully, Prof. Lotfi, since "word" is already a hotly contested part of our professional vocabulary to some, not at all to others.

Is "science" (of language or anything else) "universal or culture-bound? If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible' than others?" So provocative! If we delete all our nouns from linguistics, is there anything coherent left? Does our nominophilia rule our thinking about language? Are "root-y" language/culture groups just left out of the loop if they don't value talking in nouns?

What does "science" mean? Diving for roots it means "knowing," but in cultural terms it describes a phase of European intellectual rigor which rewards linear thinking over whole-brain thinking. Seen that way, there is no science except the true Western European version; everyone else is just on the way to being Science. Funny that linguists fell for this, given the fact that our brand of science comes from Panini in India. Oh, well, it's all Aryan at bottom, I guess.

But what of non-Aryan sciences, such as astrology, whose principles of observation, correlation, and prediction, along with the use of math, gave rise to our version of science (Newton and other founding fathers were astrologers) yet is disdained and called "unscientific"? What of cultures whose languages have no equals-sign copulas and don't value nouns -- are they hopelessly beyond the pale of ever even potentially becoming "scientific" or do they have their own version of "science" which we have completely overlooked for centuries because of our True Science lens? Are only thingy languages science-compatible for our brand of 'thing'uistics?