I am looking at papers like Where have all the adjectives gone? The case of Jinghpaw which show stuff like:

  • fi=go ggba=thinn re.
  • 3sg=TOP be.big=SUPER COP
  • 'He is the biggest.'

Also, Approaches to the Typology of Word Classes has further examples, like this in Vietnamese:

  • con cho nho nay
  • CL dog be.small this
  • 'this small dog' (Thompson 1965: 124)

But the first thing that confuses me (I still don't get) is how to conceptually think about an adjective-less statement like be-big, because the adjective is right there. What should I be imagining when I think of the word "be-big"? As opposed to just "big" in the English language.

The main question though is, for these languages that treat adjectives as verbs like this (Burmese does this too a lot), is how do they handle complex multi-word adjective-like statements, such as the English:

The super bright red-orange smokey fire lit up the room.

How do they chain together (so-to-speak) the adjectives, if they are all "be x" like verb forms?

The be-super be-bright be-red be-orange be-smoke-like fire did-light the room.

Is it something like that? If so, how is that any different than just having the adjectives. It's probably not like that though, so I'm curious what it's actually like. And how you distinguish the adjective verbs from regular verbs.

Basically, what is a complex example sentence in some language which treats adjectives like verbs? All the examples I've seen only have one adjective/verb, like "be-big" above.

  • 2
    English conveys the meaning of "big" with an adjective. Jinghpaw, from the looks of it, conveys it with a verb. So when you translate from Jinghpaw to English, you translate the Jinghpaw verb with an English adjective. A lot of your questions seem to assume the English way is the "true" way language works, and thus since English has an adjective for this meaning, all other languages must "truly" have an adjective for that meaning too. But English is only one of many languages, and the way English conveys a particular meaning isn't any more "true" or fundamental than the others.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 18:11
  • 1
    If 'big' were a verb meaning "be-big" in English, it would behave as other English verbs, so instead of saying 'the house was big' one would say '*the house bigged' and instead of 'a big house' one would say '*a bigging house'. If at the same time 'old' meant "be-old", then instead of ’a big old house’ one would say '*a bigging olding house', and instead of 'the house is old' it'd be '*the house olds'. That's how a language works when adjectives behave like verbs, and those East Asian languages you quote are also like this.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 18:59
  • @YellowSky ok gotchya, now how to visualize what this actually means haha :)
    – Lance
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 19:18
  • @Draconis I am not coming at it as if English is the true way, I just can't easily think outside the box in these cases. Hence me asking, so I can learn to think outside the box.
    – Lance
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:41
  • @Lance Sometimes you can force your brain to break the mould by finding a verb with a similar (if not quite identical) meaning. For example, instead of glossing “this man is tall” as CL man be-tall this, which just makes you think circularly about be-tall as still having an adjective, you can think of “the man towers” as a rough parallel that uses an actual verb in English to really just mean be-taller-than. In the same way that we can say, “The man towers [over others]” in English, Vietnamese people can say, “The man talls”. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:12

1 Answer 1


First, we should chip away at your supposed adjective constructions in "The super bright red-orange smokey fire". Obviously, "the" is not an adjective. "Super" in this example is an adverb, not an adjective (=very, extremely). "Red-orange" adds a complication of adjective compounding (not every language that has adjectives allows compounding of adjectives). Languages that are robust for adjectives don't necessarily have an adjective-forming derivational process turning "smoke" into "smokey". So the essence of the question is, how do you say "bright red fire" in a language without adjectives, as a distinct part of speech. Even better, though, is the question "how do you determine that there is a part of speech 'adjective' in a given language?".

I start by assuming that there are certain words which probably describe attributes of entities, for example "yellow; big; old". In English, "yellow" can be a verb or an adjective – the morphology tells you that in "The floor is yellowing", it is a verb, and in "The floor is yellower today than it was yesterday", it is an adjective. "Big" is different, in that it cannot be a verb and does not inflect like a verb (most people don't accept "embiggen": the point is that "big" by itself cannot function as a verb).

There is also a class of words that we call verbs, for example "grow, eat, resemble". You cannot add the superlative suffix (an indicator of being an adjective), nor the comparative although there is the homophonous agentive suffix -er which could confuse the matter. Also to be included in the list of verbs are "dirty, open, dry". Are these adjectives that become verbs via zero derivation, or are then verbs that become adjectives via zero derivation. Or, is there a class of category-neutral predicates in English which are non-committal for the adjective / verb distinction?

The situation in Bantu languages is that there are very few hard-core adjectives. The reason is that verbs and adjectives are composed of a root plus other stuff – perhaps a derivational suffix, or an inflectional prefix / suffix. Especially in Logoori, there is no compelling argument for the existence of a lexical category "adjective", instead there are attributive roots which can be affixed with -ɪ or -ʊ (there is a subtle semantic difference having to do with 'describing a state') to derive formal adjectives, or they can be further affixed with -h- to derive a verb. There is robust agreement, the form of which tells you whether the word is formally an adjective (nominal-series agreement) or a verb (verb-series agreement).

There is an attributive predicate -kʊʊng- meaning something like "age, become old, grow up". You can say ɪmbwa ɪngʊʊngʊ 'old dog', ɪziimbwa zingʊʊngʊ 'old dogs' using the derivational suffix ʊ and nominal agreement – thus the word is behaving as an adjective. Or, you can say ɪmbwa yaakʊʊnga 'dog which is old', ɪziimbwa zyaakʊʊnga 'dogs which are old'. Word form is how you tell whether something is behaving like an adjective vs. a verb.

The thing that Logoori brings to the table is the fact that certain (attributive) predicates are fundamentally neutral w.r.t. POS. Logoori does provide clear evidence via word-formation processes (and syntactic correlates) that some word forms are adjectives, vs. verbs. If you insist on using English as your conceptual metalanguage, you will tend to think of "yellow" as an adjective (I don't have a good synchronic argument that "dry; open" are lexically verbs or nouns).

  • What I'm trying to do from a theoretical standpoint is to get behind all the POS and think of everything like your "roots", which can manifest into various POS. But it's extremely hard coming from English, so it seems like I want to be English-centric (I don't, it's just hard to break out of). From a programming/software standpoint, it is ingrained in me there are 3 things, there are objects, there are actions (functions), and there are properties (like "size") which have values (like "big"). So, hard to break out of the mold.
    – Lance
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:54
  • "is there a class of category-neutral predicates in English", I have actually been studying hundreds of words the past few weeks like this, and believe (in English) there is always one word at the base, like "shield", you can say "shield thing", which is the shield, or "use shield", which is the action. If you can come up with a definition which uses more than what you were given (use shield), then it is not a foundational word. So the noun is the base. But just my take :). But your answer doesn't really show me how to use chained verbs-adjectives.
    – Lance
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:05
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    @Lance I really recommend learning another language (through at least a semester or two of serious study) if you want to break out of the English-centric mold. Bonus points if you choose a non-Indo-European one, but really any language other than English will have a different set of lexical categories and define those categories differently.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:10
  • @Lance, so you want to know how verb conjunction works?
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:26
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    You might like to have a look at Lojban, @Lance: that's a conlang, of course, but it was designed without verbs, nouns, or adjectives. What is has is predicates ("bridi") which can be 1-place (like "sleeps", "is green", or "is (made of) iron"), 2-place ("is above", "loves", "is a feline of species...") or many place (eg "goes to .. from .. via.. by means ...)
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 13:33

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