Among conlangers, AllNoun is a notable syntax because it only makes use one part of speech / word class, which is analagous to nouns. A natural language I've heard of (but I can't remember or find a reference to it anywhere, I think it was an Australian aboriginal language) only has three verbs. I've heard that there are some North American languages that don't exactly have nouns, but I'm not actually sure if this is true or not.

What other languages don't have parts of speech or word classes? Which do they lack, and how does their syntax work in a way so that they are not needed?

  • Aboriginal? For where? Australia? Asia? N America? S America? Etc? – Mitch Sep 19 '11 at 0:02
  • @Mitch Australia – Peter Olson Sep 19 '11 at 1:04
  • While I don't have an answer to your question, I think it would be fruitful to explore language isolates in the hope that these languages have not developed well for one reason or another (trade, wars, etc.). – prash Sep 19 '11 at 6:02
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    @hippietrail We are on a linguistics site, so what the 8th grade English teacher or Aristotle thinks is only interesting as a question of the history of science. So I think we should read the question as if it says "word class" – MatthewMartin Sep 20 '11 at 16:27
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    @prash et al. A quick mental experiment is in order. Would a piraha speaker be struck dumb (speechless) when confronted with a boy with a large green ball, a girl with a smaller red ball? Its unlikely. Language without simple words for color typically use other strategies, like "leaf colored", "blood colored". Being able (or not) to use a given strategy (lexicalization) doesn't exclude the option to use other strategies, including discourse (speaking at length to express a scenario). – MatthewMartin Sep 20 '11 at 16:31

For many languages it is claimed that they lack adjectives (for instance Thai), and that either nouns or verbs are used instead. Others claim that all languages have adjectives, if you look closely enough. Japanese has two types of adjectives: noun-like and verb-like. However it can also be analysed as having no adjectives, if the verb-like adjectives were considered just to be odd verbs and the noun-like adjectives were considered just to be odd nouns. In some languages adjectives are a closed class of words - are they still then adjectives? Not if being an open class is part of the definition of adjective :) (An open class may gain and lose words while a closed class is of a much more stable size.)

Ditto for languages that are claimed to lack nouns or verbs, it's a matter of how "noun" and "verb" is defined. AFAIK there is not yet consensus on any language lacking nouns or verbs.

Lacking articles (the, a) is not so uncommon, but I don't think there are languages that lack determiners as a whole (articles are a subset of determiners).

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  • Under the traditional concept of part of speech article is not one of the parts but is a kind of adjective. In modern approaches articles are part of the word class of determiners. – hippietrail Sep 20 '11 at 11:06
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    How part of speech is defined depends on language and also varies over time. "Part of speech" itself is outmoded, isn't it supposed to be called "word class" now? – kaleissin Sep 20 '11 at 14:22
  • Indeed, and I made a comment about that on the question itself. Either way it seems that articles are not regarded as parts of speech or a word class, but a subcategory. – hippietrail Sep 20 '11 at 14:41
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    'Part of speech' outmoded? In linguistics each of part of speech (POS), word class, and lexical category (and various combinations) are used, interchangeably. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 11 '11 at 12:01

Since the statement "X has no Y" can be disproved with just one word, you might find more researchers willing to say "X has very few Y". There are several languages in Papua New Guinea that have remarkably few verbs, sometimes as few as twenty.

There is an aboriginal language that some people claim has only three verbs, but when I looked at the reference grammar, the verb turns out to be incredibly complex, so I suppose one could just as easily argue that the language had lots of verbs and a required morpheme that came in three versions.

Here is another interesting paper about languages with very few verbs.

Ref. The Papuan languages of New Guinea

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I suspect one could make the claim that most languages either lack counters (or measure words) or that they've become (mostly) extinct. An example in English would be cattle. One does not say "I have 3 cattle", instead one says "I have 3 head of cattle". The book I suspect you are thinking of is Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. In it, in Chapter 6, there is also a short discussion of a single Japanese counter, hon (which is used to count long thing things such as sticks, pencils, rivers, phone calls, ball game hits & pitches and dried snakes) and how these categorize how these are in some respects metaphors for how one thinks about the world.

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Re AllNoun: as this is a conlang, and an artificial 'language', I'd suggest that it can't be considered a true language until it has native speakers, and that if it did have native speakers they would expand the language to suit the full range of requirements of human beings, such that it would have at least two POS categories, one that includes 'verb'-type words and one with 'noun'-type words. (Schachter 1985). This is what happens when speakers turn a pidgin into a creole.

Yes, some languages have a small, closed verb category. But in these languages the verbs are highly generic and combine with other elements (which may include coverbs, adjectives, nouns, other verbs, etc) to create verb complexes (or complex predicates) that have more specific meanings. In this way they are able to express everything that a human being needs to. (Schultze-Berndt 2000)

I doubt there are any languages without nouns. The smallest number of POS categories that I have heard about in any language is two, a 'verbs' category and a 'nouns' category. But each of these categories will contain numerous words that can be used to fill the functions that in other languages will fall into different POS categories; ie, the full range of functions is there it's just that, morphosyntactically, they are compressed into two POS categories. Thus Australian languages are usually analysed as having no distinct category of adjective. Instead, words that have adjectival meanings will be members of the same category that includes nouns, in a category often called 'nominal' in grammars of Australian languages. (Goddard 1985)

Finally, many languages will lack some part of speech that's present in some other languages, eg English doesn't have relators or coverbs. It's impossible to give a brief answer to how languages deal with this and in fact, this is what linguistic analysis is largely about, finding out how each language uses its particular set of grammatical and lexical elements to achieve the full range of functions that humans need. I've already described how languages with a small, closed verb class are able to express the full range of meanings required by speakers. Another example could be the question, how does English get along without politeness markers? It does so by using special vocabulary and morphosyntactic constructions, and I doubt many native speakers feel a lack. (Schachter 1985)

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Petrov, Slav, Dipanjan Das, and Ryan McDonald. "A universal part-of-speech tagset." arXiv preprint arXiv:1104.2086 (2011). contains an interesting comparison of the number of tags between different annotated data sets in different languages:

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The number of tags depends on how much fine-grained the annotations are intended to be, as well as the language itself.

The appendix contains a proposed mappings from language-specific part-of-speech tags to our universal part-of-speech tags.

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More information can be found on the Universal Dependencies website.

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  • Can you elaborate on how we would learn from this which languages don't have part of speech distinctions? – user6726 Oct 9 '15 at 19:09
  • @user6726 I addressed the question which language lacks which pos. – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 9 '15 at 20:06

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