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Does any serious scholar really believe that some languages have no distinction between verbs and nouns?

Wikipedia pages suggest this. I studied physics, so linguistics is not my field at all.

Question What's the global difference between nouns and verbs? raises a similar topic, but the final conclusions are missing in almost each answer.

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  • You may be interested in "vouns" and "nerbs", which Michael Walsh coined in discussion of Murrinh-Patha. – Ivan Kapitonov Feb 14 '15 at 13:29
  • See also linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/1035/445 – Alex B. Feb 15 '15 at 22:36
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    A great question. I know this has been said for some languages, but don't have any good references on me now. In some Oceanic languages it seems like all inflections, both derivational and not, can occur on both the nouny and verby words. The only real difference is that a subject marker occurs before the 'verb'. I think it's fascinating. For example reduplication marks plural nouns and repetitive verbs. They're too similar to be coincidences, but how would they be analysed as a single morpheme? – curiousdannii Feb 16 '15 at 0:42
  • No distinction lexically? Or no distinctions any of any sort, syntactic, semantic, etc? – hippietrail Feb 17 '15 at 0:45
  • I would say that's quite the case in ancient Chinese. Most words expressing actions are themselves nouns, just used in a different way. – xji Feb 20 '15 at 5:31
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One has to be careful how the words Noun and Verb are understood, if one wants a good answer.
Semanticists talk about Entities and Events, and leave Noun and Verb as formal categories,
dependent on criteria of usage (can it be a subject? can it take a definite article?) instead of meaning.

Frawley (Linguistic Semantics, 1992 Ch.3 "Entities", p.62) notes that,

  • while it is certainly not true that nouns always refer to persons, places, or things,
  • it certainly is true that persons, places, and things are overwhelmingly expressed using nouns.

This is because nouns normally refer to entities, and verbs normally refer to events (including states).
In other words, those definitions of noun and verb from grade school are completely backwards.

There's all kinds of linguistic evidence that most languages do distinguish between noun and verb.
But that's not evidence that categories like Noun and Verb can be attached to individual words.
At least not permanently; lexical categorization is a separate issue. Pretty much any English word, for instance, can be used as just about any open-category part of speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb.
But we have good tests for what a given word is being used as -- in a given sentence. Not generally.

However, the joker in the question is that it presupposes that there are words in a language.
Most languages do have words -- i.e, they can put word-level constituents together into larger ones.

But there are polysynthetic languages, like Eskimo languages and Salishan languages. In a polysynthetic language there is usually a very simple root system with dozens of derivations and inflections that get added on to form even the simplest utterance. And these roots are very general, and have lots of metaphoric and idiomatic associations -- like any other language -- so their possible forms get big very fast. Both in the sense of getting longer and longer, and in the sense of there being almost infinite extensibility of words.

It says something about Skagit (Puget Salish; Northern Lushootseed) that over 3/4 of the nouns in the language start with the overt nominalizer s- --even the words for 'man' and 'woman'. They're built on CVC roots, as is most of the rest of the language. So in Skagit, while there are nouny things and verby things and you can tell the difference in a given sentence, they don't split up the descriptive labor the way we're used to, and the roots are normally neither verby nor nouny, but can be made to refer to either. Plus there isn't a really well-defined boundary between words and sentences.

So serious scholars will question the presuppositions.

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  • Thank you for this extensive answer. Entities and events/processes are facts of nature and do not depend on the language one happens to use. So if we define nouns as those words that usually refer to entities (mama, sun), and verbs a those which usually refer to events/processes (eat, breathe), we should conclude that all languages must have nouns and verbs. But if one uses other definitions for the terms "noun" and "verb", we get other answers. The examples you give do not really change this summary, I guess. – user8144 Feb 15 '15 at 7:15
  • Just for curiosity: does Eskimo or Skagit say: "Man eats meat" in one word or in more than one? Akso in German there are words than can take half a page, but that does not make them sentences ... – user8144 Feb 15 '15 at 7:20
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    No, that wouldn't work. Because there would still be a formal difference between nouns and verbs, different in each language, which would not correlate with reference but with usage. We say "bear" is a verb in "bear fruit" but a noun in "see a bear", and their reference is irrelevant. To give only one example. We don't "define nouns" at all. Nouns are. Nouns exist; they can be observed, determined, predicted, used. Definitions are for mathematics. – john lawler in exile Feb 15 '15 at 16:05
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    They were elicited in the sentences. I'm not a native speaker and I have no sense of cruciality. All we have is texts. There are no more native speakers, though there are fairly fluent adult learners; this always changes things, in unpredictable ways. – john lawler in exile Feb 16 '15 at 3:26
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    To avoid any misunderstanding, John Lawler bears no responsibility for my Skagit example, which is not data. I constructed it for educational purposes based on published examples and my elicitations from Taqʷšəblu. So don't go quoting it. – user6726 Feb 17 '15 at 0:56
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Yes, some serious scholars do. (Not me -- I have no opinion.) The earlier thread here which you referred to and the references given there surely show that. Should a reasonable person believe such a thing? What's the problem? You can probably think of English sentences without any nouns, so why shouldn't all sentences of some language be like that?

Here's an example: "To err is human; to forgive, divine." No nouns.

It is hard to imagine how a human language could do without predicates and arguments, but predicates don't need to have verbs, and arguments don't need to have nouns.

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  • Are saying that there are languages where "sun" is not a noun, and "eat" is not a verb? I just can't believe it. – user8144 Feb 14 '15 at 16:57
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    @user8144, I don't know. Some Salish languages are supposedly candidates for nounlessness, and, while not familiar with any of them myself, I did have a conversation about this with Larry Thompson. I thought the most likely place to find nouns was people's names, and if I understood Larry correctly, there are some personal names in those languages that don't have verb roots. – Greg Lee Feb 14 '15 at 17:07
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Bearing in mind that noun, verb (and adjective) are formal categories, not substantive (semantic) ones, a necessarily-universal presence of the distinction would mean either (a) category membership can be deduced from the meaning of the word or (b) there are formal markers which identify category membership, and all words must have one of these formal markers. Since "eating" (as in "His eating bothers me") is formally a noun but refers to an action, not a person, place or thing, then semantically-based inference of category membership will give you the wrong results.

Possibility (b) can also be dispensed with. Criteria like "inflects for tense" or "can be immediately preceded by a definite article" don't work -- many languages don't inflect for tense, many languages don't have definite articles, and even in English, the definite article can immediately precede adverbs, adjectives, or whatever else an NP can have before a noun. Nouns vs. verbs do not differ in an identifiable way in all languages languages. The only marginally-plausible potentially-universal formal marker that could signal the noun / verb difference is the dominating syntactic category N vs. V. But there is no independent way to identify whether the lexical item [č'ƛ'aʔ] is dominated by N or V. In other words, words do not wear their formal category membership on their sleeves.

It is possible to learn in a specific language that there are nouns, verbs and adjectives. In this paper, Chung gives formal properties of Chamorro identifying nouns, versus verbs, versus adjectives. These properties, such as incorporability, cannot universally identify nouns, since not all languages have incorporation. So, it is possible that all existing human languages accidentally happen to make a learnable noun / verb distinction. But there is no reason to hold that the distinction is necessarily (by design) present in all languages, and as Chung notes is not theoretically required under Minimalist / DM assumptions.

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  • Sorry, but the distinction is necessary in all languages, as one needs to distinguish entities and events/processes. (See the answer by john lawler.) That distinction is a fact of nature, not a cultural one... – user8144 Feb 15 '15 at 7:11
  • "Freedom" is a noun, but not an entity, a thing. A semantic distinction doesn't replicate the noun/verb distinction. – user6726 Feb 15 '15 at 16:21
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    The distinction between entities and events is a semantic distinction, not a lexical one. It doesn't hafta be the case that specific lexical items are required for the distinction. – john lawler in exile Feb 15 '15 at 22:53
  • The question asks if "some languages have no distinction between verbs and nouns", not if "all languages have clear distinctions between verbs and nouns for every word". Given that, I think it's irrelevant to say ", a necessarily-universal presence of the distinction would mean either (a) category membership can be deduced from the meaning of the word or (b) there are formal markers which identify category membership, and all words must have one of these formal markers." – brass tacks Dec 1 '16 at 19:40
  • Just because English has words like "fun" that are ambiguous between noun and adjective, doesn't mean that English has no distinction between nouns and adjectives. Similarly, there could be plenty of ambiguity between verbs and nouns in some languages, but the language would still have a distinction if some words were verb-only, and some words were noun-only. – brass tacks Dec 1 '16 at 19:41
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The existence of the belief about the non-existence of verbs (among some scholars): true. Nothing strange if no universality of verbs. Despite the lack of verbs, no hindrance to the possibility of expression of any concept, even in English.

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Yes they do. Moreover, serious linguists dispute over definitions of noun and verb. Unsurprisingly, the two disputes are closely connected

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    This is a bit short as an answer for a question that general. What are examples of where the categorization is not as clear? Which aspects of the definitions are disputed? – lemontree Dec 1 '16 at 19:34

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