English is becoming so indifferent to the proper roles of parts of speech that I have been finding longer and longer chains of nouns in written materials. I am under the impression that chaining nouns was avoided in the 19th century, but that the practice exploded in the 20th under the influence of journalistic and bureaucratic writing. (A recent headline read “Trump waits on oil attack response,” and MILSPEAK has “radar system design expert”.) The practice also has historical precedent. Two-part compounds (e.g., manslaughter) were abundant in Old English, and German generates the likes of Speicherbranduntersuchingsrichter.
Chaining nouns is forbidden in French and Spanish, which instead chain prepositional phrases in the reverse order. The preposition is usually de, which adds nothing by way of semantic value (whereas “Trump awaits response to attack on oil fields” would have added a little.)
Is there an accepted typology of such chains or compounds? (Some types might be considered more acceptable than others.) Sanskrit grammarians wrote of bahuvrihis and tatpurušas, but these terms don’t seem adequate. I see significant differences among …
- Metaphoric bahuvrihi: low-life, bottom-feeder
- Simple specifier: sales tactic, radar system, foot fetish, balancing act, tax law
- Time and place: winter nights, kitchen table, home-made
- Object relationship with verbal noun: budget balancing, drug maker, land grab
- Subject or instrumental relationship: flea-bite, moth-eaten, hag-ridden, god-forsaken. (The participles are technically adjectives, but these compounds break the same traditional rule.)
- Possessive relationship: finger length, government secret
- Miscellaneous: sex-positive, rust-red, worm hole
Is the baleful trend to chaining nouns likely to be self-limiting? (For example, is it encountering any resistance from editors or educators?) Has it begun to infect French and Spanish? (What would l’Académie think of système radar?) I would be interested to know how far the trend has gone in Chinese, which has been generating compounds for ages.