Most language I have some knowledge of have adjectives with are either a) nominal in nature or b) verbal in nature. (apologies if this is not the best wording.)

  • In German, Romanian, and Georgian, adjectives decline for noun properties such as case.
  • In Japanese and Korean, most adjectives inflect like verbs. In Chinese there is no inflection but adjectives are described as incorporating the verb "to be".

So obviously there are always various features that make adjectives behave a bit differently from nouns or verbs, but are there languages where adjectives are morphosyntactically a very distinct category that cannot be related to either nouns or verbs?

Maybe this question only makes sense for inflecting languages since the syntax seems to vary for all three and in languages with little inflection like English where there is not much inflection difference even between nouns and verbs.

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    How about English? Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 12:02
  • English having little inflection was part of the reason I include in my wording "clearly" and "very distinct". It's moved over history from a system like German to an unclear distinction. However nouns can be used attributively which is adjective-like and adjectives can be used like nouns for instance like "the poor". Anyway it seemed to fuzzy to call. Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 12:11
  • In Korean where, as you correctly note, adjectives are typically inflected like verbs, N N chains still result in the first noun modifying the second (and what is an adjective if not a noun modifer?). 한국 음식 (hankuk umsik; Korea food; Korean food), 자동차 (cadongcha; self movement cart; car. sinokorean, from 自動車. May be special case), 영어 학원 (yenge hakwon; English language academy; a private school where you learn the English language)
    – acattle
    Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 8:14
  • @acattle: I'm not talking about the function, adjectives modify nouns, only about the form. There are nounish adjetive languages and verbish adjective languages. Maybe I need to re-write the question based solely on inflection? Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 8:38
  • I was specifically responding to your comment about English adjectives: "However nouns can be used attributively which is adjective-like...". To me it sounded like you were using this to show that English was German-like and I wanted to show that Korean exhibits this behaviour too. I apologize if I misunderstood.
    – acattle
    Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 8:58

2 Answers 2


English provides a good example (qualms expressed in response to Gaston Ümlaut notwithstanding).

  1. The expression of degree by er, est is unique to adjectives. (*This one is bedder for "This one is more of a bed". *I'm sleepering/sleepinger for "I'm sleeping more".)
  2. Adjectives do not take verbal inflection. (*I badded, *I'm badding for "I was/am being bad".)
  3. Adjectives do not take nominal inflection. (Reprising the example from your response to Gaston Ümlaut, one says the poor not *the poors.)
  4. Adjectives are subject to ordering restrictions (I love small yellow tomatoes not *I love yellow small tomatoes). Such restrictions vanish if the adjectives are replaced with nominal or verbal "counterparts" (e.g., I love these tomatoes for their smallness and yellowness / for their yellowness and smallness; I love that these tomatoes are small and yellow / are yellow and small.)
  5. There are various constructions in which only adjectives are licit. (E.g., So friendly a cat, but *So friend (of) a cat and *So befriend (of) a cat.)

Well, those are a few criteria from off the top of my head, some morphological, some syntactico-semantic. There are doubtless more.

  • Yes intuitively I felt like I was asking about a real phenomenon, but the more I try to express it in words, the more it looks like my intuition might not hold up at all. But I'll wait to see if somebody else sees something in the essence of my question that I didn't express well - after all it did get some up votes. Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 15:32
  • @hippietrail It is true that languages that completely lack an adjective class (whether open or closed) seem to fall into two groups: those that use verbs to express adjectival meanings and those that use nouns. Schachter (1985:17) calls these 'adjectival-verb' and 'adjectival-noun' languages. Perhaps this is what you had in mind? Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 6:05
  • @GastonÜmlaut: Actually I wanted to start with that duality as a given and investigate the remaining cases. Languages with v-adj's have adj's with v-concepts like tense, aspect, etc; languages with n-adj's have adj's with n-concepts like gender, number, case. Are there languages where adj's have concepts which are neither v-like nor n-like; or with a mixture of v-like and n-like concepts? Do you think this makes sense enough to be the basis of a new rewording of the question? Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 7:13
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    @hippietrail From the point of view of linguistic theory, either a language will allow a given adjective inside the DP (determiner phrase) or it won't. If it does, and if it has DP-internal agreement, you have German, etc; otherwise English. If it does not allow the adjective inside DP, then like a verb, it is a DP-external predicate. Many languages have different syntaxes for DP-DP predication (I'm the doctor) vs DP-VP predicate (I left). So, it's legitimate to ask whether adjectives in such languages constitute a third class. Maybe rephrase along those lines? Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 11:36
  • -er, -est is not inflection. ordering also is not what the topic starter was asking. Adjectives take nominal inflection in English (even if at all we can speak of any nominal inflection in this language). One of the indicators of this is the use of articles with adjectives.
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 18:42

I'm not sure if I understand your question, I'll just type my thoughts here

You may have an adjective that will generate a noun and a verb, but the adjective per se is not nominal or verbal. E.g. "thick" adjectiv, "thickness" noun, and "to thicken" verb. As I see it, "thick" is not nominal nor verbal. The noun and the verb must have derived from the adjective. Should check the origin of the word, though. English is not my first language.

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    Actually you're talking about derivation whereas I wanted to know about inflection or possibly syntax too but I'm not sure. Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 4:46

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