For pretty much any grammatical category, I can think of a language in which it's a closed class. Japanese has closed classes of verbs and (verb-like) adjectives, for example, while Swahili has a closed class of (noun-like) adjectives.

However, I can't think of any instance of the class of nouns being closed. It makes intuitive sense for this to be a universal, since giving names to objects is a pretty fundamental part of human language use. But it's equally possible that I just haven't looked at enough languages to find a counterexample.

So: is there any natural, attested language in which nouns are a closed class?

P.S. By "closed class" I mean a class that resists adding new members, like English pronouns—compare the backlash against singular "they", which has been used since before Shakespeare, to the immediate acceptance of the new verb "to google".

  • 2
    Some suggestions here: reddit.app.link/zgrztB8rUY
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 16:29
  • It's easy to call a class with less than a dozen members "closed", but < 1000 members? -- I think something else is going on (a different kind of resistance).
    – amI
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:28
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    How come verbs in Japanese form a closed class? If you can explain briefly... Very interesting question by the way!
    – lmc
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 18:30
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    @lmc I'm afraid I don't really know why, only that it is the case; new verbs tend to be expressed with nouns plus suru "do" (so one doesn't party, one goes to a party, or does a party, or whatever). Recently a very few new verbs have started to show up, though I'm not sure how widely-accepted they are…
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 19:57
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    There are certainly cultures in which personal names are a closed class, however the recursive conjunction of parental names renders the idea moot. There are might cultures or sub-cultures which change so little, that no new nouns are needed. It would be more interesting to show that this cannot be, e.g. on grounds of universal grammar, in a mathematical way, or in language evolution theory. The empirical evidence over the open set of world languages cannot be reasonably exhaustive and would only serve as counter evidence, but hinging on the definition of "noun".
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


All languages which lack nouns would fall under that umbrella – noun is an empty class. A couple of example languages are Lushootseed and Riau Indonesian. To be sure, no language has a fixed class of expressions for referring to entities, but also no language has a fixed class of expressions for referring to actions. Appeal to semantic criteria is doomed to fail, because "part of speech" is not a semantic concept, it is a syntactic one. If the syntax of a language does not mandate a sub-division into "nouns" vs. others, then the class "noun" is so closed that it is meaningless.

  • "All languages which lack nouns would fall under that umbrella – noun is an empty class." Nouns are not usually called a class.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 20:17
  • Fascinating! I know very little about Lushootseed, but I believe it does have a (closed) category of pronouns? So you could definitely make an argument that it has a closed class of nominals, and uses other (not-specifically-nominal) classes to denote other entities.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 17:44
  • Yes, "pronouns are special" in the syntax. I only know about human pronouns, dunno if the poss-pro can be used in e.g. "its branch" referring to an inanimate. Maybe @jlawler knows.
    – user6726
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 17:52

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