The prototypical example of languages with unusual open and closed categories, which is mentioned almost every time that the topic comes up, is Japanese, where pronouns are an open category and verbs are more of a closed category (though here's some interesting discussion on this point).

I'm curious to hear about more examples, not so much of languages with unusual closed category (as with other closed-verb languages, although it would be interesting if you can propose other languages with closed-class adjectives. Nahuatl, as I understand it, is one.) but about languages with unusual open classes.

So basically, I'd like to hear about languages with open classes that are more commonly closed.

  • This question is too open ended.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 17, 2014 at 1:31
  • 2
    Pronouns in Japanese are not an open class. (What language would have an open pronominal class?) Japanese nouns are an open word class. Sep 17, 2014 at 5:41
  • 1
    Pronouns in Indonesian (Malay, Bahasa) are an open class. See Jack Prentice's review article in The World's Major Languages. Any noun that can refer to a human being can be used as a free personal pronoun, and in some cases can be cliticized.
    – jlawler
    Sep 17, 2014 at 18:39
  • @ThomasGross As I undestand it, japanese pronouns have been constantly renewed over the history of the languages in a phenomenon not unlike the euphemism threadmill. It might not be as open as nouns, but it's certainly way more open than pronouns in most european languages.
    – Circeus
    Sep 18, 2014 at 0:12
  • How often is "constantly" renewed? How much is "way more" open? It's "treadmill", not "threadmill". European pronouns are probably more stable because they have multiple exponence, in particular including case properties. Case is not a property of Japanese "pronouns", or better: nouns with pronominal function. Sep 18, 2014 at 4:15

2 Answers 2


Japanese has two adjectival word classes (see for an overview here).
One can be inflected, and members of this class can end in -i, an inflectional suffix marking attribution (among other functions). These adjectives are often called i-adjectives (traditionally keiyooshi). Since they can be inflected, and thus appear as a clause head, they have valency.
The second class takes -na in attributive position, and they cannot be inflected. These adjectives are often called na-adjectives, or adjectival nouns (traditionally keiyoodooshi.

The i-adjectives are a closed class, and the na-adjectives are open. Only very rarely does it happen that a new member is included into the i-adjectives. One example is kimo-i

 kimo-i < kimochi yo  -ku   na -i
          feeling good-adv  neg-npst  
          'makes someone feel bad'

The i-adjectives being the closed adjectival class in Japanese is also reflected by the relatively low number of basic members, about 130.


Ideophones constitute an open word class in some languages (such as Kisi). These should really only be unusual to those completely unfamiliar with languages of Africa, and some of East Asia. Japanese has plenty of these, though I'm not sure they're considered an open word class there.

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