A question about UI design led me to speculate about English words which are both a verb and an adjective. My answer to the question addresses this linguistics issue as the root of the UI issue. I wonder, though, why does English have this property when other languages do not. I speak four languages and only English exhibits this property.

Is this related to the lack of conjugation in English? How did English words become so ambiguous?

  • Could you at least summarise what your decision was? – LaurenG Feb 6 '12 at 12:14
  • Please, post it in the comments, though. :) – Alenanno Feb 6 '12 at 12:16
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    Can you give some examples? The answers posted below address the isolating nature of English but not so much the phenomenon of words that can be adjectives or verbs. In your UX post you say that "on" and "off" can be verbs or adjectives but I would disagree (although "off" can be used colloquially to mean "murder"). Are you referring to adjectives that can be used as verbs meaning "to become X" or "to make X", where X is the adjective (e.g. brown, yellow, cool)? Present participle forms can be used as adjectives, too (smiling, isolating), but I don't think you are referring to this phenomenon. – musicallinguist Feb 6 '12 at 15:13
  • @LaurenG: To which decision are you referring? I did not mention any decision in the OP. Did you perhaps misread "design" as "decision"? – dotancohen Mar 1 '12 at 21:38

This is due to the fact that English has evolved becoming more and more an Isolating Language (it's not the only example, but it stands out as a peculiar example, considering its classification).

Isolating languages — often contrasted with Synthetic Languages — are characterized by the fact that their morphology is not that considerable and sometimes not existing at all. What is intended by lack of morphology? By saying that, we mean that such languages have a low morpheme-per-word ratio, so their words are hardly "divisible" in smaller elements, which are called morphemes. To understand how morphemes work, check out this answer I posted.

Summarizing what we need from that answer, English has a famous example for morpheme, which is the -s for the third person singular in verbs. It's only a letter, something "very small", but it tells you something. And that's what a morpheme is: "the smallest element in a word or in a statement that carries meaning and that cannot be further split (into smaller parts)"; the important part from this definition is "carries meaning".

English, especially if compared to other languages, has this low ratio, so it needs other means to disambiguate. You can see this simply by thinking about the fact that English almost always requires personal pronouns to come before verbs. Take this example:

  1. Speak
  2. We speak

We can't tell if the first example is the infinitive, first person singular, a noun, etc. While we know that the second one is the first person plural of the verb "to speak" because of the personal pronoun being there. Note that "speak" is itself a morpheme (it's the root that carries the lexical meaning), so it's not that English lacks morphemes completely, it just has less than other languages; it isn't totally isolating yet.

"Speak" is an unbound morpheme, which means it can stand by it self. Bound morphemes can't, so they need to be attached to other words. Roots are categorized as unbound morphemes; endings, prefixes, etc. are categorized as bound morphemes.

Let's make a contrastive example using Italian because it is good language for explaining how synthetic languages work:

  1. Parlo
  2. Parliamo

The first one is unambiguously the first person singular of the verb "to speak" in Italian, as much as the second is the first person plural. But as you can see, neither of them is preceded by the personal pronoun, which is optional in Italian. (Personal pronouns are omitted in Italian unless the context is ambiguous or used to express contrast, something like "I said X, while you said Y.")

Another famous isolating language is Chinese, which completely lacks morphology: no conjugations, no endings, no number indication (singular vs plural). When a language lacks morphology, word order is one of the means adopted by the language to compensate for this loss.

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    Another famous example of a POS merger, in a different direction, is the fact that the Latin grammarians who gave us the canonical Eight Parts of Speech didn't include "Adjective". They treated adjectives as nouns because they inflected like nouns and modified nouns and agreed with nouns, just like nouns do. Only later -- after the loss of most nominal inflections -- did the phrases Nomen Substantivum and Nomen Adjectivum become commonly distinguished, while Participium quietly slipped off the list of The Eight. – jlawler Feb 2 '12 at 18:35
  • @jlawler Hey, that's you answering! Thanks, I'll take a look at that. :D – Alenanno Feb 2 '12 at 18:39
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    @jlawler: Good example. What I still deplore every day, however, is that English chose to drop "substantive" from "substantive noun", and "noun" from "adjective noun": now it is all a mess—just look at pronouns. In all other languages, this has not happened; it is much neater to have a category that includes both nouns and adjectives. – Cerberus Feb 2 '12 at 18:54
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    For Latin, maybe. English distinguishes nouns from adjectives pretty sharply -- an adjective can't be a noun unless it's with a definite article, and then only generically (the dead, the poor, etc). But predicate adjectives are a large proportion of clausal predicates, so they're much closer to verbs than to nouns. Languages vary a lot in their POS, just like they do in their vowels. – jlawler Feb 2 '12 at 19:17
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    @jlawler are you saying that "the yellow" is generic in the sentence "of the two scarves in his wardrobe, he preferred the yellow"? – phoog May 1 at 23:21

This is actually not unique to English. English is nearly what lingusts call an Isolating or Analytic language. An isolating language does not make a lot of use of conjugations, declensions, and other ways of adding affixes onto words. Instead, as the name implies, words stand in isolation and it's the word order and word choice that makes a difference.

English is one example of an isolating language. Others include Chinese and Vietnamese. In Chinese adjectives are sometimes considered to be a form of intransitive verb.

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Words in different part of speech (POS) categories are considered different words even if they have the same form. Thus /bank/ (noun) and /bank/ (verb) are different words that simply happen to have the same form. This means, for example that they will each have their own entry in dictionaries. They also seem to function as distinct items in our mental lexicons.

Other answers have suggested that this situation may be connected to the lowish amount of morphology in English, but Kastovsky (in Bauer and Valera 2005) argues that this is not correct and gives examples of languages with much more inflectional morphology than English that still have this situation.

In English there is a productive process called 'zero-derivation' (or 'conversion') which results in identical forms in different POS categories. This process creates a new word from an old one without any change in form. Thus English speakers regularly use zero-derivation to create new verbs from nouns. Zero-derivation between other part of speech categories also happens, but is less common.

Another source of identical forms across multiple POS categories is historical change. English has lost many inflections and this loss has in some cases produced words in different POS categories that have the same form. An example here is 'talk' (noun) and 'talk' (verb).

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  • Zero derivation of nouns from verbs has become depressingly common, but perhaps that has only taken off in the last eight years (examples include reveal, spend, and ask). – phoog May 1 at 23:21

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