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.


  1. I'd be able to follow this better if you said a little about what you mean by "nouniness". It's a puzzle to me.

  2. I'm a bit rusty on this but the basic idea revolves around the concept of prototypicality which I see as being related to Wittgenstein's 'family resemblance' idea. Our concepts have fuzzy edges and are not generally based on clearcut lists of necessary or sufficient criteria. So a certain kind of chair – like a kitchen chair – could be seen as more prototypical than a sofa or a wheelchair, say.

    'Noun' is a more technical concept but, within the context of linguistics, is a natural and useful one. Exactly how you would characterize it depends to some extent on the theoretical framework, but I think it can be persuasively argued that, for example, 'cat' is more prototypical than 'curiosity'.

  3. I'm a nonbeliever in prototypicality. It seems to me that only if you already understand concept X can you identify what would count as a prototype of X. But maybe I just don't get the point of prototype talk.

  4. "It seems to me that only if you already understand concept X can you identify what would count as a prototype of X."

    Yes, being able to identify a standard or typical example is part of understanding a concept. But you seem to want to say, first this (understanding the concept), then that (understanding a typical example).

    I assume you have looked at so-called prototype theory and found it wanting. But its basic ideas always seemed interesting to me and it appears to have made some positive contributions to psychology, linguistics, etc. – despite the unfortunate mixing in some quarters of science or scholarship with politics (I am thinking in particular of George Lakoff).

  5. My simple point is that concepts always bring together diverse examples and instances. We learn them that way. Parrots and honeyeaters and robins are all examples of birds. Fords and Toyotas etc are all examples of cars. Girls and boys and men and women are all examples of people. No one of them is a prototype.

    Re Lakoff, yes.

  6. There are a number questions you could ask, e.g. about how young children learn new concepts, about how adults learn new concepts, about the order in which different types of concept (concrete, abstract, etc.) are learned, about whether typical instances of a concept are grasped before atypical instances, about how knowledge of concepts and word meanings are stored in our brains, etc.

    As I indicated, it's a while since I've looked at these matters, but my understanding is that the general tradition of thought which I am appealing to here has played an important role in addressing some of these questions.

    But, leaving the science aside, I'm puzzled that you appear to resist the idea that some instances of a concept can seem more peripheral than others. Even Proust talked about this.

  7. I don't doubt that there are many cases that are hard to categorise. We need scientific guidance to learn that a shark is not a kind of fish or that a bat is not a kind of bird or that calcium is a kind of metal.

  8. You seem to be suggesting that our categories have no internal structure.

    But, more importantly, I suspect that we are looking at this question from different perspectives, and that you see categories as having a more objective or robust or independent existence than I would. I see them as more or less useful constructs, reflecting reality but not as it were constituting their own reality.

  9. No, I don't disagree with you on that -- except that the last phrase is too obscure as it stands. Concepts are constitutive of something, but its not of their own reality! Nor are they "constitutive of reality" either.

  10. But I still don't see what you've got against seeing concepts as (often) having the sort of structure I describe.

    My approach here is – or aspires to be – basically empirical. And I would have thought there is sufficient empirical evidence at least to take these notions seriously.

    I can't help wondering if philosophical debates (e.g. about 'natural kinds' or various forms of nominalism or realism, for example) are lurking in the background.

  11. I got stuck at "nounier" and "nouniest." The "prototypical" business seems like a side issue. But I'm wondering if I understand the basic thrust: "nouniest" just seems to mean "words involving human-like agents are count nouns far more often than they are mass nouns." And "nounier" just means the same, a bit less often.

  12. Actually, GC, the prototypicality idea is necessary for me to make the point I want to make. I am just using 'nouny', 'nounier' and 'nouniest' as a jokey way of referring to gradations of nominal prototypicality.

    Let's assume that, psychologically speaking, (many) concepts have a structure which involves more and less typical or central examples. So, our concept of an automobile (or motor car), would be based around a kind of composite image or schema (or set of images or schemata) that would probably derive its key features from the kind of sedans that were most prominent when we first took an interest in these matters. A jeep or a three-wheeled 'bubble car' or a racing car would be less prototypical. Whereas the concept of racing cars would have its own prototypical structure, again based on what kind of (and era of) car racing one was initiated into.

    The concept of the noun is more difficult to deal with because it is both abstract and technical. It is a kind of meta-concept. We have the word 'cat' which serves to refer to a type of mammal, but which also is as a word an instance of the syntactic category of noun. And if you examine lots of nouns you find that some (notably animate nouns) come with a fuller set of nouny tricks (capacity for inflection, etc.) than others.

    These prototypical nouns are the most basic – and arguably the oldest.

    And so I thought that such an analysis might give us an insight into the psychological world of our early ancestors for whom animacy was all around them. Animacy was the norm. Every thing was animate. [It was at this point that my old colleague – taught as an undergraduate at Harvard by Quine himself – gave a dismissive shrug.]

    1. I do agree with the animism observation. Foundation of mythical thinking, as I see it. Makes sense there would be traces even built into the structure language. Obviously I'm not good at linguistic theory though. Thanks for the explanation.

  13. I would say that our concept of a car is based around the idea of a form of transport, and the practices that go with that idea. That's what we aim at when we make cars.

    The shape of a car is maybe useful in helping us to recognise a car, but it has nothing to do with the concept of a car. Cars can take many shapes -- sedans, station wagons, utilities, vans, etc. So it seems we do disagree at a basic level.

  14. Alan

    I can accept that the concept is primarily based on and around the idea of a form of transport and the practices associated with that idea. Most other functions (racing, daredevilling, status symbol, courting aid, etc.) could be included in 'practices associated'. But form or shape is also a part of the concept.

    I had hoped to avoid this sort of objection by using the word 'image' (rather than 'shape') and linking it to 'schema'. Schemata are suitably abstract and easily incorporate functions and purposes and so on.

    My car examples were focussed on the psychological concept of a motor car rather than the word 'car' and how it is used. But whether one is focussing strictly on how and when the word is used or on the more general (and difficult) issue of the psychological concept (or schema or schemata) 'behind the word' as it were, shape etc. can't be ignored. And, of course, form and function are often related.

    Also, even looking just at your examples, it does seem to me that the word 'car' fits some better than others. I'm thinking about how a native English speaker would conceptualize and use the word. A van (or a small truck) is less likely to be called a car than a sedan is, and people might think that calling it a car was just not as good a fit as calling a sedan or a convertible or a station wagon a car.

  15. Suppose we agree that sedans are prototype cars and station wagons are cars but not prototypes. OK, but so what? What can be inferred from this, in your view?

  16. I am not suggesting there is some kind of single, clear prototype for each concept, only that there may be a kind of central/peripheral (or unmarked/marked) structure (and thus more or less prototypical instances) associated with some concepts.

    There may be inferences to be drawn (which could be and maybe have been tested) about which words or concepts are learned first, or forgotten last (in cases of dementia). It is also an interesting question whether people's intuitions about the structure of concepts (e.g. markedness and the way some concepts are related to others) are actually reflected in the way our brains record these concepts.

  17. Which brings up a possibly idle comment. Whether it's worthwhile tracking down animistic thinking from linguistic evidence depends on what we could actually do with that. It may be just "more evidence" to bolster other observations. I remember reading some fieldwork C G Jung did, concerning the primitive mind. He was another who thought animism was a key feature of distant pre-literate cultures. Native American stories/myths (and many others) confirm this. Interesting to see a linguistic approach to it. I can also see why a PhD advisor would say something like "Sure, if you want to spend your professional life on it ... but maybe you don't." LOL.

  18. Yes, given that we already know a lot about our predispositions to project agency into the inanimate world and about the animistic beliefs of traditional, non-literate cultures, I don't know that a syntactic and historical study of nouns would add much. The animism angle would in effect just add a bit of interest to what would be an essentially linguistic analysis.

    There is renewed interest, I think, in the question of how complex language evolved, but I doubt that the sort of study I am talking about here would throw any light on that.