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In a technical mailing list where I participate, someone asked:

A famous linguist once said that "to understand a new language, that you should focus on the verbs first." Who said that?

One participant linked to the linguist David Crystal, who starts a blog post thus:

There are all kinds of bits and pieces in a sentence, but I doubt if there’s anything more important than the verb.

So, is this a popular sentiment among linguists? Is focus on verbs [when studying a new language], or something similar, a well-known aphorism in linguistics?

If so, where did it originate, who popularized it, and what does it mean (in the sense of why should one focus on verbs instead, of, say, nouns)?


Just to clarify: this question is unrelated to learning a new language, or language pedagogy as a discipline. The question is concerned only with linguistics, and the study of languages qua languages.

  • This question may worth being asked on Language Learning beta. Also, in a philosophic sense, a language describes objects and their interactions. Hence, nouns/pronouns describe objects while verbs stand for interactions. In this sense, focusing on interactions only does not seem to be a very productive idea. – bytebuster May 24 '16 at 13:40
  • @bytebuster I ask this not in the context of learning a new language, but in studying one, as a linguist studies languages. I'm more interested in whether this phrase is widespread among linguists, proper, than among language teachers or in the discipline of language pedagogy. – Dan Bron May 24 '16 at 13:42
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    The way I say it is "Verbs have more fun". They are always more inflected than nouns, they have more semantic dimensions than nouns, and they control everything in the sentence. As for language learning, everybody uses their own strategy. – jlawler May 24 '16 at 14:52
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    @jlawler Saying that verbs always are inflected more than nouns is just begging for a counter example! ;) If only I had one. – curiousdannii May 24 '16 at 23:34
  • Generally the average number of morphemes per verb is higher than the a.n.o.m. per noun. – jlawler May 25 '16 at 1:17

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