The discovery of nouns
2. Classification of nouns in
3. Nouns and pronouns
Semantic vs. grammatical
1. Number in specific languages
2. Obligatoriness of number
3. Number agreement
4. Types of number
The discovery of nouns
The word "noun" comes from the name." Word classes like nouns were first
described by Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini and ancient Greeks
like Dionysios Thrax, and
defined in terms of their morphological
properties. For example, in Ancient Greek, nouns can be inflected for grammatical case, such
as dative or accusative. Verbs, on the other hand, can be inflected for tenses, such as past,
present or future, while nouns cannot. Aristotle also had a
notion of onomata (nouns) and rhemata (verbs) which, however, does not exactly
correspond our notions of verbs and nouns. In her dissertation, Vinokurova has
a more detailed discussion of the historical origin of the notion of a noun.
Different definitions of
Expressions of natural
language will have properties at different levels. They have formal properties,
like what kinds of morphological
suffixes they can
take, and what kinds of other expressions they can combine with. but they also
have semantic properties,
i.e. properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of nouns on the top
of this page is thus a formal definition. That definition is uncontroversial,
and has the advantage that it allows us to effectively distinguish nouns from
non-nouns. However, it has the disadvandage that it does not apply to nouns in
all languages. For example in Russian, there are no
definite articles, so one cannot define nouns by means of those. There are also
several attempts of defining nouns in terms of their semantic properties.
Many of these are controversial, but some are discussed below.
Names for things
In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the
definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to
a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, or idea, etc. This is a
semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being
quite uninformative. Part of the problem is that the definition makes use of
relatively general nouns ("thing," "phenomenon,"
"event") to define what nouns are. The existence of such general
nouns shows us that nouns are organized in taxonomic hierarchies.
But other kinds of expressions are also organized in hierarchies. For example
all of the verbs "stroll," "saunter," "stride,"
and "tread" are more specific words than the more general
"walk." The latter is more specific than the verb "move."
But it is unlikely that such hierarchies can be used to define nouns and verbs.
Furthermore, an influential theory has it that verbs like "kill" or
"die" refer to events, and so they fall under the definition.
Similarly, adjectives like "yellow" or "difficult" might be
thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like "outside" or
"upstairs" seem to refer to places. Worse still, a trip into the
woods can be referred to by the verbs "stroll" or "walk."
But verbs, adjectives and adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren’t verbs. So the
definition is not particularly helpful in distinguishing nouns from other parts
Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are
prototypically referential. That definition is
also not very helpful in distinguishing actual nouns from verbs. But it may
still correctly identify a core property of nounhood. For example, we will tend
to use nouns like "fool" and "car" when we wish to refer to
fools and cars, respectively. The notion that this is prototypocal reflects the
fact that such nouns can be used, even though nothing with the corresponding
property is referred to:
John is no fool.
If I had a car, I’d go to Marakech.
The first sentence above doesn’t refer to any fools, nor
does the second one refer to any particular car.
Predicates with identity
The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a very
subtle semantic definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like
"same" can modify nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like
verbs or adjectives. Not only that, but there also doesn’t seem to exist any other
expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider
the following examples.
Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.
There is no English adverb "samely." In some other
languages, like Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to
"samely." Hence, in Czech, the translation of the last sentence would
be fine; however, it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way:
not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we
could explain this, if nouns denote logical predicate with identity criteria.
An identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that
"person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2."
Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of
this is due to Gupta:
National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in
Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last
sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn’t. It
is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who travelled
with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In that case, one
would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers but only 1
million persons. Thus, the way that we count passengers isn’t
necessarily the same as the way that we count persons. Put somewhat
differently: At two different times, you may correspond to two distinct passengers,
even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity
criteria, see Gupta.
Recently, the linguist Mark Baker has proposed that Geach’s
definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain
the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with
(in-)definite articles and numerals, and are "prototypically
referential" because they are all and only those parts of speech
that provide identity criteria. Baker’s proposals are quite new, and linguists
are still evaluating them.
Classification of nouns in English
Proper nouns and common nouns
Proper nouns (also called proper names) are the
names of unique entities. For example, "Janet", "Jupiter"
and "Germany" are proper nouns. Proper nouns are usually English and most other
languages that use the Latin alphabet,
and this is one easy way to recognise them. However, in German nouns of all
types are capitalized. The convention of capitalizing all nouns was previously
used in English, but has long fallen into disuse.
All other nouns are called common nouns. For example,
"girl", "planet", and "country" are common nouns.
Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun
and a proper noun, where one such entity is special. For example: "There
can be many gods, but there is
only one God." This is
somewhat magnified in Hebrew
where EL means god (as in a god), God (as in the God), and Canaanite god).
The common meaning of the word or words constituting a
proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For
example, someone might be named "Tiger Smith" despite being neither a
smith. For this
reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between
languages, although they may be transliterated. For
example, the German surname Knödel becomes Knodel or Knoedel in English
(not the literal Dumpling). However, the translation of placenames and the
names of authors is common and
sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa
becomes English; the English
London becomes Londres in French; and the