This is something I was just thinking about. In English, we seem to rely mostly on articles to tell proper nouns and common nouns apart. Proper nouns are always singular, and lack an article. While common nouns can only lack an article in the indefinite plural.

I was thinking of this because of, well, superheros. Many have common nouns for names. And not all of them are even combinations of words like Batman or Superman. What about Robin, Raven, and Cyborg? If a language lacked articles, then the word 'robin' could just as easily be interpreted as 'a robin' or 'the robin' as the name of a person.

I'm aware that some languages do treat proper nouns differently. Tagalog for instance uses an entirely separate set of prepositions for them (all noun clauses in Tagalog require a preposition, also they only have 3, barring the different forms they can have of course for proper nouns and plural nouns and groups of proper nouns).

I've also read that Russian requires proper nouns in the accusative case to take the genitive ending (normally the accusative ending is identical to the nominative). Spanish also requires proper nouns to take a 'personal a' as a preposition when used as a direct object. Of course, Spanish has articles so its kinda moot.

What other ways do languages have to avoid getting common nouns confused with proper nouns? Do they just avoid using common nouns as names (at least ones that aren't unusual compounds)?

And note that I'm referring to spoken speech. Many languages written with the Latin alphabet capitalize proper nouns, but that doesn't help when hearing the name spoken, obviously.

I want to know this for a conlang. I was thinking of having my conlang lack articles, but if I do that, then it would create an ambiguity in a lot of places when it comes to proper nouns. Maybe I should just have articles, or in general some kind of way of marking definiteness? Yes, I'm aware not all languages use free-standing particles to mark definiteness like we do.

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    the USA, the Philippines, the Vatican, the Atlantic, the West Bank, the Balkans, the Beatles, the Yankees, the Valley... – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 28 '17 at 6:25
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    You're conflating animacy and properness. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 28 '17 at 6:27
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    Anatolian Turkish has slightly different stress patterns for cities than for common nouns that are spellt the same way. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 28 '17 at 6:28
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    Portuguese has articles and yet in colloquial Portuguese people often precede proper personal names or nicknames with a definite article. (I'm bringing this up only because you implied the answer to your question is trivial if the language has articles. It's not.) – pablodf76 Jul 28 '17 at 22:30
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Bantu languages typically treat names distinctly from common nouns. In Logoori and Kerewe, nouns have an initial vowel which is part of class agreement (omitted in certain contexts): names do not allow this prefix. The form of certain preposition differs when attached to a common nouns vs. names, for example ha- "at" for common nouns, hali- for names. Singular vs. plural in common nouns is signaled by selection of a particular class prefix. Names do not have a plural form, even when the name is recognizably based on a common noun with a class prefix – they do, however, trigger apropriate singular vs. plural class agreements (humans in cl. 2, places in cl. 10) so the restriction is about affixation to the noun.


Korean lacks articles, or any grammatical/orthographic feature to distinguish proper nouns (e.g., capital letters). On the other hand, most Korean names do not coincide with common words, so there's less potential for confusion.

In case when a name do sound like another word, usually we think of them as just two different words that happen to have the same sound, and the context is enough to understand what is meant. (E.g., 한국 hanguk means "Korea", but it's also a male given name. But if I say "I lent that book to hanguk," then it's clear I'm talking about a person.)

I think it does raise some difficulties for translating English fantasy/SF novels filled with the Ring, the Grey Mountains, the Culture, the Foundation, and what not.

  • This post looks like a confirmation that the problem exists, not actually an answer to the original question. – bytebuster Jul 30 '17 at 0:39
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    Hmm, "you don't need to do anything special" sounds like a good answer for "how do languages do X?" to me, but maybe that's just me. – jick Jul 30 '17 at 3:15

Spanish has what is known as the a personal, or "personal a". When a person is the direct object of most verbs, it takes an 'a' preposition (which normally translates as 'to' in English).

This is a case that is not exactly identical with yours, since the preposition is required when the direct object is a person rather than a proper noun per se, but it illustrates how a noun class can be marked in a distinctive way by speakers of a language.

  • Abrazo a mi hermana. (I hug my sister.)
  • Mi padre abraza a mi hermanita. (My father hugs my little sister.)
  • Abrazo a Elena. (I hug Elena.)
  • Veo a Ana. (I see Ana.)
  • Veo al Papa. (I see the Pope.) (Note that a combines with the 'el' direct article to form al.)
  • Llamo al presidente. (I call the president.)


  • Veo un gato. (I see a cat.)
  • Toco la guitarra. (I play the guitar.)
  • Carlos fumó todos mis cigarros (Carlos smoked all of my cigars.)
  • Ana bebe una Coca-Cola (Ana drinks a Coca-Cola.) (not a una Coca-Cola, because although it is a proper noun, it is not a person)
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    As mentioned in the question's comments, the question confuses properness with animacy. You do well to note the difference. – pablodf76 Jul 28 '17 at 22:28
  • gato is animate, the example is questionable. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 29 '17 at 18:32

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