Are there any languages in which the, largely Indo-European/PIE, and more compartmentalized parts-of-speech system don't work very well? In particular, I am wondering if there are any languages in which the relationship between a verb and noun to other words in a sentence are largely the same? This then, would make the purpose of a verb and noun largely the same, -or at least their distinction more vague-. The reason I ask is because I am curious as to how, if this exists, it may affect communication within sentences and how it changes the way a sentence may need to be formed.

  • The ultimate purpose of languages is describing things and their interactions. Normally, nouns denote things, while verbs denote (inter-)actions. There are many words that can serve both, but then again, verbs like "to hammer" denote some implied action that is done with the aid of "the hammer" (a noun). The opposite is also often true. Is this what you need? Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 4:44
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    I don't know of a particular language where the distinction between verbs and nouns is difficult, but as for adjectives, in general one could attest that they are either more noun-like or more verb-like, judging from inflection (~ declension vs. conjugation). In most IE language, adjectives behave morpho-syntactically rather nominal, but there are other languages where they have more characteristics of a verb and depending on your definition of an adjective (and most syntax theories heavily, if not exclusively rely on the English language), the "Western" POS's might not be fully appropriate. Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 8:47
  • BTW, there is a conlang named Kēlen which claims to have no verbs at all, but expresses all predicates by a small set of relation particles in combination with nouns, so I broke the bowl would be expressed by something like I changed the bowl's state to 'broken', with a relational particle denoting a change of state combined with the nouns (or adjectives) bowl and broken. There is some inflection though, the particles can carry person or tense inflection and are thus after all to some degree verbal - and it's anyway not a natural language of course. Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 8:59
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    All languages seem to have parts of speech, but some differ substantially from POS systems found in in IE languages. The answer to this question about Maori may be relevant. Note also that Samoan is another language in which distinguishing nouns and verbs is difficult. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 5:22

3 Answers 3


Well yes, since there are languages that are (by various authors) claimed to lack the N/V distinction altogether (e.g. several Wakashan, Salishan, Munda and Malayo-Polynesian languages -- just search the internet)

  • From the examples you've given it looks like you're more talking about category-less roots than languages without noun/verb distinctions. I only know the Malayo-Polynesian languages myself, but it's absolutely wrong to say they lack noun/verb distinctions (at least for the ones I'm familiar with), or that "the relationship between a verb and noun to other words in a sentence are largely the same". A root may not have a category, but by the time it gets used in a sentence it does.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 16:20
  • @curiousdannii I said several Malayo-Polynesian languages, not all of them (there are over 1000). The ones that have been claimed to lack the N/V distinction include e.g. Riau Indonesian, Niuean, Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Tagalog, Kambera (and there are more -- just google). If you define N, V etc. as merely syntactic categories then of course a N cannot (by definition) be a V. Usually, N, V etc. are defined as lexical categories already, i.e. as properties of stems (not roots)
    – jaam
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 16:50
  • Well some theories such as Distributed Morphology argue that most or all lexemes don't have categories, so it's not at all surprising that many languages would show that. I thought the question was asking about syntactic categories though because of what I quoted from the question.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 0:18
  • DM is not mainstream (and linguistics is full of conflicting theories). But the question is indeed vague (the title poses a more general question than your quote). I answered the title
    – jaam
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 21:53
  • In a polysynthetic language like Lushootseed, there are certainly nouny things and verby things, but mostly they're simply put together from roots with standard parts and plenty of idiom grease. There are exceptions in that some roots seem always to be nouns, but they're the ones you'd expect -- 'man, woman, rock, variety of fish', etc.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 20:52

Sonja Lang's Toki Pona has ambiguity so a word can be interpreted as both a noun and a verb. An example from the documentation is "mi moku" that can be translated as "I eat" or "I am food". "Moku" can also be used as an adjective/compound, e.g., "tomo moku" supermarket or restaurant.

Currently, Wikidata lexemes (the part of Wikidata that describes lexemes) has - perhaps controversially - two different lexemes for "moku": https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Lexeme:L220707 (noun) and https://tools.wmflabs.org/ordia/L220708 (verb).


Yes: Arabic. This was analyzed in considerable detail very early in the Arabic tradition.. Whether some word counts as a verb or a noun is not due to any inherent or essential nature of the word, but to how it is used. And I'm not talking about homonyms etc. but about really the same word. The canonical examples are the so-called "verbal nouns" and "participles". These western terms are miscategorizations. E.g. "Zaydun Daaribu Amrin" v. "Zaydun Daaribun Amran". here the suffixes -u, -un, -in, -an are case endings. The former would normally be translated "Zayd (is the) striker of Amr" (noun); the latter, either that or "Zayd (is, or was, or will be) striking Amr" (verb). But it depends entirely on context; the best translation in either case could be either an English verb or a noun.

Moral of the story: categories like "noun" and "verb" are neither universal nor scientific. They are Western cultural artifacts.

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    You are completely wrong. The Arabic grammarians distinguish very clearly between “noun” اسم and “verb” فعل.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 20:52
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    By the way, the native Sanskrit grammarians also distinguish between "nouns" and "verbs". They are not "Western cultural artifacts". That is just talking nonsense.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 22:36
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    nāma “noun” : ākhyāta “verb”
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 22:52
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    well, that's the topic, right? I did not say the words are meaningless. I can also refer to Pegasus, or 1 divided by zero. my point is that the notion that these (English language) concepts are not universal, and certainly not scientifically established. They're not like "electron" or "mass".
    – mobileink
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 23:01
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    It is an interesting and well-researched scientific question as to whether all languages have parts of speech and if so, what they are. As I said above, all languages that linguists have looked at certainly do have parts of speech, typically at least two, which can be referred to as 'nouns' and 'verbs', although the definitions of those POS might be quite different to that for English. Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 2:40

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