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Along the same lines of If you can use Chinese nouns as verbs, or vice versa, I am wondering if you can treat nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns in languages such as these:

  • Inuktitut
  • Hebrew
  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • Greek
  • Latin
  • Hindi

For example, in any one of these languages, following along with the post above, I'm wondering what to do if you have a noun and want to use it as a verb, or have a verb and want to use it as a noun.

In English the word "mark" has both a noun form ("The mark on the paper") and a verb form ("Mark the paper"). In addition, you can make nouns into verbs by "verbifying" it. "Paper me, please", meaning "to pass the paper". No actual change happens to the word structure. On the other hand, it seems to transform verbs into nouns, some change happens. For example, "to happen" becomes not "a happen", but "a happening". Or "to write" becomes not "a write" but "a writing". If you were, in a programming sense, to try to create an object called a "write" as in class Write, which symbolized a document, then at first that would seem jarring. But it is something that could be gotten used to, as we have things like "writs" which are pretty close to that concept (at least in my mind). If you think of a writing as a writ, then a write is just a writ.

But I guess my initial question scope is simply about converting nouns into verbs, not necessarily converting verbs into nouns. In English, it seems you can convert any noun into a verb without changing its form. You could even say "hippopotamus me" when talking from vet to vet about helping in giving birth to a hippopotamus. It's not as if you need to say "hippopotamus-lia me" or some other prefix/suffix thing.

So my main question is what you must do in these languages above, some illustrative example languages to see what it's like across languages. That is, if you can treat a noun as a verb without any change to its form in all of these languages, or you must add a prefix/suffix/modifier to the noun, or you must use a completely different form for each (as in Chinese "mark" 痕 vs. 标). To elaborate further, from a programming perspective, if you have a noun in one of these languages called foo, or ᐊᐳᑦ or whatever, if it is acceptable/understandable/interpretable, or instead if it is jarring/weird/confusing, to use that same word as a function name, or if you must use some alternative verb form for the function name. This just helps clarify the concept even more, by seeing what a programming language would enforce.

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    In CS, "write" can be a noun: for example, you might profile the number of disk writes versus disk reads for some method. – Draconis Mar 5 at 15:34
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What you're asking about is called zero derivation. Derivation is when you apply some process to a word to turn it into a new word: in English, for example, you can put -er on a verb to make a new noun. Zero derivation is when nothing obvious changes in the process.

In English, zero derivation can be applied from adjectives to nouns, and from nouns to verbs. The former is pretty common in languages with "noun-like adjectives", and isn't generally worth commenting on. The latter is much rarer.

In Inuktitut, Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, and Latin, verbs have special morphology that nouns simply don't. For example, in Latin, verbs take markings for person, number, tense, voice, and mood that can't simply be left off. All verbs have these markers, and no nouns do, so any derivation process will involve adding them. So I could say, "zero derivation is utterly impossible". But this is a boring answer, so I'm going to ignore those markers and focus on roots only.

In Inuktitut, Ancient Greek, and Latin, this type of zero derivation doesn't really happen. There are plenty of ways to derive verbs from nouns, but they involve affixes of some sort. In Japanese, verbs are a closed class, so making new verbs isn't easy or regular at all.

In Hebrew, it's…complicated. A Semitic root can be readily used as a verb or a noun, and the changes in pattern that mark this could easily fall under the "verb-exclusive morphology" that I said I was ignoring. You can see this especially clearly when nouns are borrowed as new and productive roots, like √s-m-s "text message" or √g-g-l "Google". Both of these came from English nouns, and can be productively used as either nouns or verbs.

(As for Hindi, any dialect of Chinese, or Modern Greek, I have no idea: I don't speak any of those languages well enough to comment.)

  • Excellent answer. Darnit though, so in English it's easy to make verbs from nouns, but for the other languages you mentioned it's impossible. – Lance Pollard Mar 5 at 5:42
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    @LancePollard It's totally possible, you just need affixes. – Draconis Mar 5 at 15:32

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