Linguistics & Nominalising Languages - 3
 Dan Moonhawk Alford
14 Sep 2000


Kenneth Allen Hyde wrote:
[Moonhawk:] the speakers specifically of Algonkian languages say they can talk all day long and never utter a single noun.
I'm not going to argue with this, because I'm sure that it's quite true that this is what native speakers of these languages report. One question that does immediately leap to mind, however, is whether there is a reason to accept this report at face value?
[Moonhawk]
Nobody took anything at face value; bad assumption that that was all I did as a linguist of 30-some years. That's the punchline of a much longer discussion and analysis. I've known some of these speakers for over 20 years, and have been discussing this with them for most of that time. Most have doctorates, are linguistically savvy, and have read Whorf in the original language (i.e., instead of through the eyes of others). I've been in high-level discussions between them and eminent quantum physicists, I've sat in ceremony with them, I've partied late into the night with some of them -- and I trust their own native intuitions about their own languages, especially when they, not I, go back and forth between theirs and English all day, every day, and they know what they have to do inside their own heads to manage it. Let's say my discriminative criterion is that over decades I've learned to trust their wisdom over and over about a multitude of things, including their nascent indigenous linguistics observations, far more than I would a typical reservation "informant."

Have I yet made clear why I do not bring forward their claim to this august List as a trivial matter but one I believe is informed and deserves serious consideration and discussion, as now seems happening?

[Kenneth]
Does anyone have actual corpora of the appropriate data, and has anyone done the necessary analysis and coding to verify this report? After all, if there is one thing that sociolinguists have shown over and over again, it is that people tend to over-report language behavior that they value, and under-report behavior that is stigmatized.
[Moonhawk]
Until these indigenous linguists produce such, see Whorf p243, the Nootka example where three NPs in English melt into 3 verbs plus infixes -- no nouns anywhere to be seen. It's been sitting there in Whorf the whole time, and he even did it in an arresting graphic so people wouldn't miss it! Of course he couldn't forsee generations of linguists taught to sneer at the mere mention of his name, scaring them away from reading his writings or mentioning ANY of his ideas, a dark age we seem finally to be emerging from.
[Kenneth]
But what I wanted to bring up was not this argument, but rather the issue of nouns and verbs, and other things, which seems to be a the heart of the discussion. Both sides seem to be discussing noun-oriented languages and verb-oriented languages and the concepts of nouns and verbs without making the terminology precise. One side says "oh, nouns are things in language" and the other side says "oh, nouns are only things in linguistic analyses," but both sides continue to talk about these so-called things. Verbs, of course, get the same treatment.

 Let's be a little more precise. We are actually talking about several different levels of experience. There is the "real world" level, which is the world around us which comes to us, moment by moment, as a vast multi-sensory experience/perception event. There is the "language" level, which consists of various mental "objects" that are, in part, created by our categorization of the "real world" as well as the systems that process these objects. Also, there is the "linguistics" level, which is a metalanguage level where we describe and talk about the objects and systems of language. Mind you, these are not the only levels to worry about, but they are probably the most important for the current discussion and will do for going along with. Also, I won't, for this discussion, get into any of the mediations and interpenetrations between the various levels.

 On one level (the "real world" one), of course, "nouns" do not exist. A rock is not a noun, nor is it a verb, nor any other category of language. It is simply something that exists and which is part of our perceptible world. On the language level, we may have a mental object that consists of our categorical perception of the "real world" rock. This object is processed by the systems of our language in various ways. Even on this level, it is not clear that the term "noun" really has any meaning. There are simply language objects, and system. It is only at the metalinguistic level of describing language, that the term "nouns" takes on any reality, and even here, it's a very fluid reality indeed.

 I think that we are deceived by our metalanguage into thinking that there is some abstract and ideal distinction between nouns and verbs (or other parts of speech). In the real world, the perception event of "rock" has no language-related features. Those are entirely of our own manufacture and application. My own experience with linguistic description (working in such diverse language families as Romance and Western Austronesian) suggests that the metalinguistic reality of nouns and verbs (or any other part of speech) is language specific. In some languages, there is a distinction. In others, there may not be (I am particularly thinking of David Gil's work on Indonesian dialects here). Where there is a distinction, it is made arbitrarily on a language-specific basis.

 Now, I don't work on Native American languages (right now, at least *grin*), but from what the various participants in this discussion have said, it seems like an alternative analysis is possible. Rather than speaking of noun-oriented languages and verb-oriented languages, it seems like we could simply say that some languages (such as English, or French) set the noun/verb distinction fairly close to the middle of the static- dynamic perception event continuum. Other languages, such as the Athabaskan languages, might be said to set the noun/verb distinction near the static end, resulting in a language where most perception events are encoded by language objects that we label verbs in our metalanguage. NB: I am using the static/dynamic description for the sake of exposition only. It is quite possible that other labels may be more relevant for specific langugages.

[Moonhawk]
I like it! And then, for short, we can call them "more nouny" and "more verby" languages -- back almost where we started but one circling down on the spiral with new distinctions. ;-) It's reminiscent of my treatment of iconic vs arbitrary: on the one hand, strictly arbitrary; but on the other, a similar balancing continuum between iconic/arbitrary, with English leaning to the arbitrary side and Amerind to the primarily iconic.
[Kenneth]
Oh, one point, since this was also at the heart of the debate, is that a linguistic metalanguage that was based on a soi-disant "verb-oriented" language would not necessarily be better than one that was based on a "noun-oriented" language.
[Moonhawk]
Gosh, did "better" enter the discussion before now? I thought we were discussing alternatives.
[Kenneth]
I personally would expect that there would still be a tendency to grant concepts from the metalanguage more "reality" than they actually have. In other words, there would still be the tendency to think that terms of the metalanguage were features of the "objects" and systems of the language level, or even the perception events of the "real world" level. These conflations and confusions would be different than the ones that we find in some of our own linguistic theory, but I doubt that there would be any fewer of them. =)
[Moonhawk]
This is typical for expectations from the outside of the other way of thinking. Could be right -- who knows?!
[Kenneth]
[Moonhawk:] How could it train me for languages that shuffle 80 kinesthetic/relationship roots to create new words on the fly -- more verby than nouny, where one word can also be a full sentence.
Conversely, how could training in such a language prepare someone to analyse and describe languages that "shuffle" thousands of roots and affixes to generate new words, where each word has very clear nominal, verbal, or other features that change depending on the morphological composition? Equally poorly, or equally well (depending on your pessimism/optimism orientation).
[Moonhawk]
Again, who knows, unless we open dialogues with them so we can get to *trust* each other and listen deeply?
[Kenneth]
[Moonhawk:] The map is not the territory. Nouns do not exist in languages
"Noun" is a metalinguistic term which is useful when talking about languages. This doesn't mean that nouns don't exist, just that we have to recognize that their only reality is of our own making (and is arbitrary). Perhaps it would be better to say that something exists and we choose to call that something "nouns."
[Moonhawk]
Fine.
[Kenneth]
[Moonhawk:] I'm not sure how to characterize without offending you the thinking style which Native Americans find offensive -- nay, childish, if truth be known.
Perhaps you are looking for the distinction between focusing on the "real world" level versus focusing on the "language" level? In other words, one style (which some people call "right-brained" thinking) attends to the non-categorized perception events while another style attends to categories of events. Both styles, of course, have their advantages and disadvantages. My instinct would be to say that those people who attend to the non-categorized perception events will probably be more likely to notice subtle interrelations between event moments, but less likely to generalize. On the other hand, the people who attend to the categorized perceptions will be more likely to recognize broad general patterns, but may miss the fine-detail connections. Hopefully, as linguists we will all bring a balanced approach, using both styles of thinking to develop our descriptions and models of language. =)
[Moonhawk]
Indeed! In your dichotomous labelling, you forgot to include "whole-brain" thinking, which characterizes quantum physics (which most people understand next to nothing about), Native "seventh-generational" and the best of linguistics thinking. This is precisely why the whole-brain model is a perfect basis for the next incarnation of Western Science, folks! I truly don't understand why linguists of all people fight me on this! The alternative "science" is Newtonian science, which excludes meaning altogether, yet linguists love to call linguistics "scientific"! What up wit' 'at?!
[Kenneth]
[Moonhawk:] the combination of no nouns and no copulas, which makes hash out of Western logic, Western monocausal deterministic science, etc.
Why would the lack of nouns in any language (or group of languages) have any bearing on the validity of logic as a tool,
[Moonhawk]
I've written on this before, and feared repeating, but take a syllogism like "Socrates' teacher was a woman. All women are mortal. Therefore Socrates' teacher was mortal" and remove NPs and copulas. What's left? Certainly no useable logic such as we give the name "logic" to.
[Kenneth]
or on the scientific method (which was never "monocausal" except when it was dominated by religion and became addicted to the "prime urge" idea)?
[Moonhawk]
Really?! So that explains the plethora of Whorf critics who mistakenly attributed the "strong-form" of monocausal determinism to him! I wondered why they did that! Please re-read your classical physics and notice the many ecological class-action suits around, such as the current Lummi Indian one where they basically have to prove what barrells from what plants dumped the specific chemicals killing their fishbeds.
[Kenneth]
Neither logic nor science says that nouns must exist (nor verbs, for that matter). Of course, if you start from one or more false premises, you might construct a logical argument that "proves" that nouns are a necessary condition for language, but that doesn't mean the logic is wrong, simply that the premises were.
All you have to know is the difference between the Euclidean and non-euclidean geometries that underlie classical vs relativity/quantum physics in order to see the object vs relationship models of mathematics underlying science. The rest follows. Q.E.D.