In data modeling and other areas of knowledge organization there is often a strict separation between abstract classes of things and individual objects. For instance I am an instance of the class human (among other classes), Paris is an instance of the class city and so on. The idea of classes and instances has its roots in logic statements. I assume that natural language does not root in logic.

Do natural languages exist with a separation between words for classes and words for instances (at least for some subset of words, e.g. words for living things) and how to they apply this separation?

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    How about English, where you can use "a" with a class but not with an instance (a city, a human, *a Joe, *a Paris)? Is that the sort of thing you're talking about?
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 2, 2021 at 21:16
  • On that same line, in languages with articles, the presence of an article marks an instance of the class whose name follows the article. Dog is a class, and a dog represents one instance of the Dog class. This analogy isn't great, though, since not all nouns are countable, and yet we do have a concept of an instance of the Cattle class.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 4:23
  • Note that the distinction between "class" and "instance" is itself artificial, an artifact of programming practice. As work with generics shows, speakers easily move back and forth along a cline between them.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 15:56

1 Answer 1


In some theories of epistemology, the distinction between class and individual is not strict, for example the class "mammal" is composed of individuals such as "dog; cat; human; horse", and "horse" in turn is composed of numerous horses (some of whom have names, most of whom do not), or individual humans (most of whom have names). Likewise, the class "element" is composed of individuals such as "helium, oxygen, iron", and "iron" is composed of all of the individual atoms of iron (etc.). Your example seems to be about proper names. There are dozens of cities names Paris, probably millions of people named William, perhaps a few people named Libulule, one country called Mongolia: all of these are termed proper names. In Bantu languages, proper names often have a special property, that of not taking the "augment" which ordinary nouns take. This is a property shared by relational terms such as "mother, father, sister, grandfather...".

Pronouns, especially personal pronouns, don't intrinsically refer to just one individual (whereas proper names might be unique), therefore a billion people probably do refer to themselves as "I" (and many more could so self-refer). The "meaning" of "I" is "the speaker" (at least as computed in a certain context) so there tends to only be one person that "I" refers to (reported speech complicates the generalization a bit). Pronouns are generally a special class of words in languages (though one might also say that Japanese doesn't have pronouns, that's a complicated topic).

It's hard to say what exactly the linguistic analogs are, since it's not clear what you have in mind as the defining characteristic of "class" and "individual". I would guess that it is linguistically driven, in that even though "mammal" is composed of "human; dog; horse" etc. you can ultimately prune the intermediate classifications and say that mammal is ultimately composed of Bill1, Bill2... Bill99384, Jack1... horse1, horse2.... – and you don't say that Bill is composed of "Bill's left arm, Bill's right arm, Bill's left foot..."

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