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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Nouny nouns

Most of us come up with ideas which we think are good but which we don't develop or exploit. Ideas for making money or doing good, or – as in the case I am about to describe – ideas which have absolutely no possible commercial or practical applications.

Typically, we discuss these bright ideas with trusted friends or family members and get discouraged when our interlocutors are less than overwhelmed.

So let me recycle here (to the extent that I can reconstruct it from memory) one such idea which was effectively discouraged by an old academic friend and colleague whose views on the matter I may have taken a shade too seriously. Or not, as the case may be.

It relates to the topic of animism, which I raised in my previous post on this site.

There I talked about the so-called 'mind projection fallacy' discussed by Edwin Thompson Jaynes. He talked about evidence in ancient literature and pointed out that the fallacy in question would have long pre-dated written records.

We have anthropological evidence for something like Jaynes's mind projection fallacy from studies of various non-literate cultures, but my idea was to look for evidence in the structure of language.

For our natural tendency to project human-like intelligence into non-living and non-human nature is obviously reflected in various ways in the grammar and morphology of the languages we speak or know about, and these languages (would have) not only reflect(ed) but also facilitate(d) animistic modes of thinking.

You find traces of animism even in modern English idioms such as 'the wind blows', but grammatical analysis of both verbal and nominal forms takes us much further back in time.

My intention was to focus on nouns. Willard Van Orman Quine speculated (in his Word and Object as I recall) that the most basic form of noun was the mass noun – like 'sand' – rather than the count noun – like 'hill'. The former doesn't need an article ('the' or 'a'), the latter does.

But, counter to Quine's speculations, it can in fact be demonstrated by looking at the potential for inflection – grammatical suffixes and so on – of various kinds of noun in a range of languages within the Indo-European family that the prototypical noun – the 'nounier' noun if you like – is the count noun rather than the mass noun; and, of the count nouns, animate nouns are nounier than inanimate nouns; and nouns relating to humans or human-like agents are the nouniest of all.

My intention, then, was to elaborate and refine and draw out the implications of this fact: that for many languages – including some of the oldest linguistic forms of which we have any knowledge – the nouniest nouns are personal agents.

Perhaps this idea had already been developed by others at the time I first thought of it. Perhaps it has been discussed and developed more recently. Perhaps it is just not an interesting enough idea to bother with. Or perhaps none of the above applies.

Wishing, then, to maintain – at least for a little while – a state of blissful ignorance on the matter, I am deliberately postponing any scholarly delving.

I have also refrained from mentioning the name of the linguist (now in his eighties) whose work was my jumping-off point. If his name comes up in my (or anyone else's) searching it will suggest that the territory is still relatively virgin.