Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors

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Federico Escobar pointed me to an essay by David Brooks, “The 2016 Sidney Awards, Part I“, NYT 12/27/2016:

Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs. […]

Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.

Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.

Of course I wondered about this, since David Brooks was post-truth before post-truth was cool (see e.g. “Reality v. Brooks“, 6/1/2015). And it’s likely to puzzle both philosophers and psychologists to be told that they view faith, knowledge, and happiness as objects.

So I went to the cited essay — Perry Link, “The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?“, NYRB 6/30/2016.

And I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Brooks reports Link’s noun and verb counts correctly:

Wanting to test my intuition that classical Chinese was more verb-heavy than its Indo-European counterparts, I opened Confucius’s Analects and an English translation of Plato’s Apology of Socrates and counted nouns and verbs. Confucius uses slightly more verbs than nouns. Plato uses about 45 percent more nouns than verbs. In search of a more recent example (but still from before the major Western-language influence on Chinese), I chose at random a page from Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber and a page from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The Cao page had 130 nouns and 166 verbs (a 0.8 to 1 ratio), while the Dickens page had 96 nouns and 38 verbs (a 2.5 to 1 ratio).

I remembered from reading Link’s 2013 book (see”Perry Link on Chinese ‘rhythm, metaphor, politics’“. 5/13/2013) that he does engage the mind-body problem in grammatical terms. In the NYRB article, he wonders whether

people who think in Indo-European languages [are] better off because their languages lead them to clear conceptualization of an important puzzle, or are thinkers in Chinese better off because their language gets them through life equally well without the puzzle?

But the theory about faith, knowledge, and happiness being “activities” is pure Brooksian meta-grammatical invention — in this case resonating with one of his fundamental themes, namely the allegedly profound psychological differences between West and East.

And Link’s part-of-speech counts still worry me, for two reasons: First, his sample was small; second, the definitions of noun, verb, and word are problematic in contexts like this.

To explore these problems, I took a quick look at part-of-speech counts in some published English and Chinese treebanks.

The 2015 edition of the Penn Treebank is a revision of the original 1994 Penn Treebank analysis of more than a million words of 1989 Wall Street Journal stories — excluding punctuation, there are 1,030,982 word tokens. Of these,

  • 367,124 are (one of the various types of) nouns, or 35.6%
  • 157,222 are (are of the various types of) verbs, or 15.2%

So the noun/verb ratio is 2.34 to 1.

But wait — there is also a category of “modal”, which is a kind of verb. If we include those, the results are

  • 169,232 verbs, or 16.4%

and now the noun/verb ratio is 2.17 to 1.

However, news text in general is pretty noun-heavy, and the WSJ is especially noun-y. So let’s compare the 2012 English Web Treebank, whose sources are “weblogs, reviews, question-answers, newsgroups, email”.  Using the same definitions, this source contains 218,783 word tokens, of which

  • 60,737 are nouns, or 27.8%
  • 43,826 are verbs (including modals), or 20.0%

for a noun/verb ratio of 1.39 to 1.

The Chinese Treebank 9.0 includes data from newswire, broadcast material, magazine articles, government documents, and web text, comprising 3,247,331 characters divided into 2,084,412 words. Of these

  • 559,975 are nouns, or 26.9%
  • 423,568 are verbs, or 20.3%

This gives us a noun/verb ratio of 1.32 to 1.

But wait — the “verb” category includes the tag VA, about which the CTB part-of-speech tagging guide says:

VA roughly corresponds to adjectives in English and stative verbs in the literature on Chinese grammars. […] One open question about adjectives is whether they form a subclass of verbs in Chinese. We will not get into that debate.

[Note that the Chinese Treebank also has an adjective category JJ.]

There are 43,668 words marked as VA, or 2.1% — if we remove these from the verb category, we get

  • 379,900 verbs, or 18.2%

and the noun/verb ratio becomes 1.47 to 1.

And there’s another wrinkle, having to do with the treatment of proper nouns and compound nouns. Thus 新华社 is treated in the Chinese treebank as single word of category “proper noun”, whereas the English translation “Xinhua News Agency” is three words, each one separately tagged as a proper noun. Similarly
东南亚 is treated as a single proper noun meaning “Southeast Asia”, which would be two proper nouns in an English treebank version.

If we split the Chinese “words”, or joined the English “words”, the Chinese noun count would rise, or the English noun count would fall.

So adding it all up, we can conclude that within each language, noun/verb ratios vary a great deal depending on the style of the material analyzed, the definition of “noun” and “verb”, and the definition of “word”. And within those parameters, it’s not at all obvious that there’s actually any significant difference in nouniness between modern  Mandarin Chinese and English.

[I should add that I haven’t shown that no relevant difference exists — perhaps if we controlled carefully for genre, register, and grammatical definitions, a nouniness signal would emerge, either as a result of fundamental grammatical differences or as a result of cultural differences in writing style. And perhaps it could be shown that the hypothetical nouniness differences have psychosocial consequences. But so far, this looks to me like a seductive story without any real content — in contrast to the obvious and real differences in determiners, plural marking, and classifiers.]

Here’s a final quote from Perry Link’s 2013 book An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, in which he pulls the Whorfian punch that seems to have attracted Brooks’ admiration:

[I]t might be that Western languages talk about “entities” rather too much— perhaps thereby creating problems where there needn’t have been problems, or at least not such tough ones. Western philosophers have long wrestled with what we mean by terms like “the good,” “mind,” “reality,” and “existence.” These are nouns, and we might ask how much of Western puzzlement over them has had to do with trying to figure out what “things” they are. In Chinese it is extremely awkward to translate “the good” as a noun; “reality” and “existence” as nouns are marginally more possible, but still are more easily discussed using verbs or other parts of speech. […]

Despite some very interesting contrasts, however, on the whole I found more similarities than differences in comparing the conceptual metaphors of Chinese and English. The puzzles about “before” and “after” as spatial metaphors for time led to very similar answers for the two languages. […] Even something as basic as “high is more” (high level, high octane, etc.) can be seen as having the simple experiential basis that, originally, the more physical objects one puts in a place, the higher a pile becomes. Other theorists have gone further, claiming that it is not just common experience but the hardwiring of the human brain that leads to commonalities in perception. Kant claims this for concepts of space and time, and Chomsky for fundamental grammatical structures.

 



45 Comments

  1. Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors • Zhi Chinese said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    […] Source: Language Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors […]

  2. Cervantes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    And I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Brooks reports Link’s noun and verb counts correctly

    Brooks claims that, in Link’s comparison, two similar passages were examined, whereas I believe Link wrote that he compared two pages selected at random. What does Brooks mean by that “similar”?

    [(myl) As you suggest, Brooks apparently created that imagined similarity in order to make Link’s somewhat desultory experiment seem more believable.]

  3. ahkow said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    There’s another possible problem with Link’s logic: Given sufficient context, Chinese allows for null subjects and objects, while English doesn’t (setting aside optionally intransitive verbs like “eat,” “win”), which will lead to a lower noun-to-verb ratio. So, it might not have been that Confucius preferred to use more verbs, but that Confucius could omit nouns and expect his students to fill in the blanks.

    Did the Penn Treebank counts include these null subjects and objects?

    [(myl) The Chinese treebank does include null elements of various types, including null subjects and objects. I didn’t include these in the noun count. On the other hand, I didn’t include pronouns in the English treebank noun count either.]

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    Note that he specifically says ‘… from before the major Western-language influence on Chinese’, so presumably he might say your comparisons were after Western influence on Chinese made it syntactically more noun-heavy. I myself have no idea; also, extending the last comment, it could be that ‘classical’ Chinese omitted nouns that modern Chinese makes explicit.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

    [(myl) This might very well be true — Link certainly implies that it is, and I gather that classical Chinese is very different in many ways from modern Chinese, to the point of being unintelligible to untrained modern readers. But unfortunately there’s no collection of parsed or pos-tagged classical Chinese text, so I think we have to reserve judgment on the particular question of relative nouniness.]

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:14 am

    A larger question suggested by all this: Link refers to “people who think in Indo-European languages” and “thinkers in Chinese”. I know there’s research showing that one’s thinking is affected by language in certain ways (often interpreted as weak versions of Sapir-Whorf), but it’s not clear to me that “thinking in a language” is such a well-defined notion. That is, before I consciously start putting my thoughts into words, to what extent can I be said to be thinking in any language at all?

    Has there been any actual psycholinguistic research (as opposed to philosophical speculation) about this?

    [(myl) Common sense suggests that there are some kinds of thinking that are fundamentally and primarily verbal, like counting, and other kinds that are fundamentally non-verbal. Obvious examples of the latter kind include the various forms of the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, where for example you can think of a person, including what they look like, but can’t access their name. Other examples include problem-solving based on graphical and geometrical images, conscious and unconscious motor planning, and so on. There’s certainly psychological and neurological research about all of these cases, and many others.

    Quantifying the relative extent of verbal and non-verbal aspects of “thinking” strikes me as an ill-defined problem. To start with it’s unclear what counts as “thinking”, and then for any attempt at a definition there will be enormous individual and contextual differences.]

  6. V said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    I also have a problem with the concept of “thinking in a language”. Certainly my subjective experience is that I form thoughts and translate them to language.

  7. Cervantes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:33 am

    (I’m the other Cervantes.)

    Also, too, in English gerunds are classified as nouns but they’re “verbiness” is also apparent to the interlocutors. They’re a little bit of both. We know that having and thinking and doing imply action even if they are grammatically functioning as nouns.

  8. V said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    BTW, I’m not the same V that started posting here recently, meybe one of us should change that.

  9. Dan said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:52 am

    I was always amused that the idiomatic way of saying “you’re wrong” uses an adjective in English, a noun in French (“tu as tort”, “you have wrongness”) and a verb in Japanese (“chigaimasu”, which I guess literally is something like “you err” or “it differs”?).

    But I was never silly enough to think that that actually told you anything about English-speaking, French-speaking, and Japanese-speaking people specifically…

  10. Cervantes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 10:20 am

    Indeed. In English you say “I like it,” in Spanish you say “Me gusta,” i.e. “It pleases me.” I don’t think that means anything in particular.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    How does Treebank (or any other such resource) distinguish -ing words as to whether they are gerunds (verb forms), participles (adjectives) or verbal nouns?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 11:25 am

    OK it’s been 30 years since I read the relevant piece but I’m pretty sure I remember Benjamin Lee Whorf hisownself going on at some length about how IE languages were excessively noun-heavy and that this tended to make their speakers conceptualize the world in an object-oriented way, by comparison to e.g. Hopi which was (allegedly! I certainly can’t independently confirm the accuracy of the characterization) more verb-heavy tended to make its speakers conceptualize the world in a more process-oriented way. An example he gave IIRC was that Anglophones would talk about there being waves on the water (as if the waves were separate “things” from the deeper water underneath) whereas the Hopi speaker (yeah, I know they live in a pretty dry area so this puzzled me at the time) would say something you would literally gloss as something like “the-water-it-sloshes.”

    Of course thinking that nouns are inherently about “things” or “objects” is a Schoolhouse-Rock level of analysis. Not only is “process” itself a noun in English, but lots of processes can be described with nouns without (IMHO) misconceptualizing them as static objects. And indeed, pace Cervantes supra, if you were to describe waves in English with something like “There is a sloshing of the water,” it’s not implausible to argue that the gerund (or gerundish word, and I exoect Pullum/Huddleston probably have their own terminology for it …) “sloshing” is better understood as a sort of noun than a sort of verb.

  13. Russell said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 11:34 am

    This noun-vs-verb observation comes up in discussions of Japanese as well, and as I understand it from my former adviser, it’s something that translators notice periodically. However, they usually talk about it not as one language using more/fewer nouns, but rather that one language is more “noun-centered” and another is more “verb-centered”, which doesn’t necessarily mean that one uses a certain part of speech more than another, but uses it in more “prominent” ways (for some intuitive definition of “prominent”).

    We tried to collect a corpus that exemplified this phenomenon (well, first of all to see whether it even exists), and described it in a paper.

    We didn’t actually do raw counts of all nouns and verbs (we should have, or we did and I can’t remember), but we did find differences according to what you might call event-type: transitive vs intransitive, causal vs inchoative, agent-focused vs non-agent-focused, etc. This ended up manifesting, at times, in translation pairs where English had a noun that corresponded to a Japanese verb in somewhat regular ways.

    As I recall, for example, Japanese style (or grammar?) avoids (or disallows?) non-agentive causative subjects. One example: the English

    “better diagnosis has made experts aware…”

    was translated as

    “due to the fact that diagnostic methods advanced, we’ve become aware…”

  14. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    I think this is a fascinating and fruitful area – the area where language and cognition really meet, and one where linguists and neuroscientists and even philosophers can find common ground and hash out a lot of wooly concepts into hard data, and vice versa.
    But to the point about “thinking in a language”, I am personally subjectively very aware of the difference in my own mind) between pre- or non-verbal thinking and verbal thinking. They are distinct and qualitatively different processes in my experience. That may be more obvious to me because I tend to be a very visual thinker, and I can see how people who are less visual or spatially oriented might give primacy to language-based thought. However, both are equally “conscious” to me, and one doesn’t necessarily precede the other. They’re just left- and right-brained ways of solving different problems.
    I think this distinction is well established in neurological and psychological science as well as linguistics, but it’s an area where philosophers (and the general public) have been relatively muddled.

  15. Cervantes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    I doubt it makes any difference whether I say “Thinking is hard” or “It’s hard to think.” They’re just different ways of saying the same thing.

  16. John Laviolette said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

    @J W Brewer: About that long ago, I took a philosophy class that talked about much the same thing. One of our texts for the class was Psychotherapy East and West by Alan Watts. I don’t recall if he specifically mentioned the whole noun-vs.-verb issue, but maybe? In any case, the idea that some languages encourage people to think more in verbs than in nouns, and that this is somehow better, seems to have been around for a long time now, and I’m wondering whether Whorf or someone else was the source?

    [(myl) Jorge Luis Borges — though whether Watts et al. would admit the connection is unclear to me.]

    I see that R. Buckminster Fuller co-wrote a book in 1970 called I Seem to Be a Verb, but I haven’t read that, so I’m not sure if that’s relevant. But that quote does crop up in these contexts.

  17. Brett said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

    @J. W. Brewer:. It seems interesting to me that perhaps the most famously evocative description of waves in English (Tennyson’s “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.”) refers to them in a very verb-heavy way.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    @Brett. I think that would be fully consistent with Anglophones generally talking about waves in a noun-heavy way — poetry is often striking because it talks about familiar things in an unusual (but non unparsable) way.

  19. Cervantes said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    It’s the nature of waves to move. It would be hard to describe them without verbs.

  20. Peter Erwin said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    Anglophones generally talking about waves in a noun-heavy way

    Though people often use adjectives to refer to the quality (or absence) of waves — the sea is “choppy”, the lake is “smooth” or “still”, etc.

  21. Wang Yujiang said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

    English dictionaries classified words as nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech, but Chinese dictionaries did not.
    Perry Link is an outstanding Sinologist instead of a linguistic professor. He may have not noticed the phenomenon.

  22. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

    @Russell This is an integral part of teaching English-French translation too. All the manuals I’ve seen on the topic have included an explicit chapter on this very topic, describing English as more verb-oriented/heavy and french as more noun-heavy.

    (There’s usually a chapter about how to deal with English’s higher-frequency use of the passive voice too, which us French speakers can actually recognize TYVM, and I’m sure Strunk and White would have a field day about that *sarcasm*)

  23. David Moser said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    Perry Link’s observations about Chinese should always be taken seriously, and his hunches have a lot of suggestive empirical support from several research domains. I don’t have the time at the moment to go into detail, but just as an example, one can check out the work of Twila Tardif at UMich about the relative prevalence of verbs over nouns in mother/child or caretaker/child interactions in Chinese. For example:

    https://web.stanford.edu/group/langlearninglab/cgi-bin/publications/Tardifetal2008.pdf

    http://lehighcognitivedevelopment.weebly.com/uploads/2/1/1/3/21136804/chanbrandone__tardif_2009-journofcrossculturalpsych.pdf

  24. TR said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    I opened Confucius’s Analects and an English translation of Plato’s Apology of Socrates and counted nouns and verbs. Confucius uses slightly more verbs than nouns. Plato uses about 45 percent more nouns than verbs.

    His translator does, you mean. Does Link really think part-of-speech counts are going to be preserved in translation, especially between two such structurally different languages as English and Classical Greek? This seems to be part of his assumption that all IE languages behave the same in this respect (“classical Chinese was more verb-heavy than its Indo-European counterparts”, “people who think in Indo-European languages [are] better off”), which is embarrassingly clueless.

  25. TR said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

    I just counted the nouns and verbs in the first paragraph of Plato’s Apology in Greek: 37 finite verbs, 34 nouns. This is leaving out infinitives, which would raise the verb count significantly.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

    In the remote past when I was a lad and Latin prose composition was actually a thing, it was a truism that pupils should be told to “strengthen their verbs.” Classical Latin, at any rate, is more verb-oriented than modern European languages, in the sense that verbs carry more semantic freight relative to nouns.

  27. djbcjk said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    “Ever since … the Civil War, the mental habits of England had been displaying a tropism toward the noun. That something began to happen thereabouts … has been widely agreed; Eliot alludes to a dissociation of sensibility … We may imagine our great-great-grandchildren speaking of our 20th century as the time when the Great Verb–Noun Shift consolidated itself after some 300 years. …
    “An early symptom had been Dryden’s sense that Shakespeare needed rewriting. There was talk of decorum and the unities, but if we examine Dryden’s cadence and line we find him busy at something he was perhaps hardly aware of: unravelling Shakespeare’s lines that turn on verbs, re-weaving them around nouns. …
    “Dryden is an early instance of a new mind that prefers opposed nouns to single verbs, if only because a stressed verb lets possibilities hover unpredictably. And to the extent than an effect is unpredictable it can feel uncontrolled, a venture into the random, which isn’t Augustan. … Dryden was accommodating to a taste we share, a taste for the programmed rather than the fortuitous, taking pleasure in planned, not improvised, effects.”
    Hugh Kenner A Sinking Island (1988), pp 100–1

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 5:43 am

    There are quite a number of languages (including the ur-European Basque) where fully inflected verbs form a closed class with few members (well under a hundred in some Australian languages. On the other hand, it’s not that their full-fledged verbs are infrequent, just that there aren’t all that many different ones.

    The idea that any of this determines the speakers’ philosophy is pretty ludicrous. However, I suppose you could concoct a better case for the reverse: increased nouniness of speech reflecting a prior worldview favouring reification and the privileging of static over dynamic abstractions, as the passage djcbjk cites suggests.

    I’ve seen it suggested that confusion in Western philosophical tradition over “being” has arisen because of the accident that Greek (like most modern European languages) has only one basic verb for “exist”, “be somewhere” and “be something.” I suspect this is a neat idea that wouldn’t stand a lot of scrutiny of the awkward details, though.

    There is an interesting book called “Later Mohist Logic” by A C Graham which inter alia is quite thought-provoking on how the structure of Old Chinese may have affected the Mohists’ investigations in logic. Haven’t read it in a bit and may be misremembering. It does at any rate demonstrate that any supposed linguistic difficulties were not insuperable. A white horse is not a horse …

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 6:07 am

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/school-names/

  30. Wang Yujiang said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:27 am

    “Seriously and Link’s hunches” could not prove Chinese dictionaries have classified the Chinese words as noun, verb, and other parts of speech. The easiest way to prove it is to look at Chinese dictionaries. For example, New Chinese dictionary (新华字典Xinhua Zidian).
    Studying written Chinese according to English grammar does not mean there is a Chinese grammar. If you know Chinese dictionaries have not classified Chinese words, you will realize that the contrasting is meaningless.

    [(myl) Dictionaries are not a definitive (or even relevant) source on this question. You should look at scholarly work on Chinese syntax, which in all cases assumes that lexical categories are relevant. Can you point to a coherent analysis of Mandarin grammar that does not make that assumption?]

  31. V said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Can anyone parse what Wang Yujiang is trying to say?

  32. Wang Yujiang said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    What I said is a fact.

  33. V said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 8:45 am

    That may well be the case, but it is completely unclear to me _what_ it is you’re saying.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    From Edwin Schmitt:

    Fascinating exchange, what I was hoping someone would dig in to is not so much the quantitative difference in the way nouns and verbs are used in Chinese and English, but rather the qualitative difference (if that makes sense). For instance, is there a significant difference in the way nouns and verbs interact in Chinese and English. I am thinking primarily of the way mass nouns can be distinguished either syntactically or semantically. I know there has been a lot of debate since the publishing of Chad Hansen’s mass-noun hypothesis in Language and Logic in Ancient China, particularly Mou Bo’s argument
    http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Comp/CompMou.htm
    and Dan Robbins had an interesting piece
    https://www.dartmouth.edu/~earlychina/docs/2008/ec25_robins1.pdf
    Does anyone know if this discussion has advanced much in recent years?

    In English I know there is Brendan Gillion’s work:
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/25001491?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    or for non-paywalled material see:
    http://www.aclweb.org/anthology/W96-0307
    But more recently there was a fascinating paper by David Nicolas about using plural logic to analyze English mass nouns and I am curious if that has been extended to analyze Chinese mass nouns. Many thanks for any suggestions.

  35. philip said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

    But @ David Eddyshaw why is it such an absurd idea that any of this could determine a speaker’s philosophy? One of my delights in Irish is the different worldview apparent in the way it expresses emotions and ownership.

    For example: English: I am a man, I am here, I am happy.
    Irish: Is fear mé (permanent state); tá mé anseo (temporary state); tá áthas orm (there is happiness on me; temporary state).

    Similarly with possession: Is liomsa an madra – sort of means the dog is with me (with the implications that it may not always be with me, as opposed to stating outright ownership).

    These methods of expression to my mind are evidence of a world view or philosophy of ancestors, and also remind current speakers that there is no possible correlation in Irish between statements such as ‘I am an accountant’ and ‘I am sad’ [although there may be a causative relationship!]

  36. Richard W said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    Wang Yujiang claims that Chinese dictionaries don’t classify words as nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech. In 现代汉语词典 (Xiandai Hanyu Cidian), the headwords are marked as {动}, {名}, {形} (verb, noun, adjective) and so on. Here are a few examples from that dictionary.

    热望 rèwàng ①{动}热烈盼望:~的目光|~取得成功。②{名}热切的希望:满怀~|不负您的一片~。
    热效应 rèxiàoyìng {名}指物质系统在物理的或化学的等温过程中只做膨胀功时所吸收或放出的热量。根据反应性质的不同,分为燃烧热、生成热、中和热、溶解热等。
    热心 rèxīn {形}有热情,有兴趣,肯尽力:~人|~给大家办事|他对工会工作很~。

  37. Jason Merchant said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

    Reminds me of a paper I once heard at a conference by a European typologist on the different degrees to which languages used “plurality”: the method for determining this was a hand count of how many plural nouns occurred in 40+ different translations of the gospel of Matthew. Just a raw frequency count. There was no denominator, so we had no idea if high “plurality” counts in e.g. Chamorro vs. Lithuanian were just a function of the text having relatively more nouns than other texts.

    The problem was also that the researcher only had a superficial knowledge of most of the languages, but wanted to have a genetically and areally very diverse sample, so he couldn’t find parsed or pos-tagged versions of most of these texts. His method was to learn the plural markers on nouns and count those. He didn’t know the languages well enough to be able to identify nouns per se in all cases (or their functional equivalents).

    But the idea of using parallel texts, translations of a single text, is not a bad one for calibrating across languages: we could indeed find out (in a way that a comparison of a book by Cixin Liu with one by Ted Sturgeon can never tell us, given their different contents) whether a given language register makes relatively more frequent use of the language’s version of nouns, etc.

    Perhaps one reason no-one has done this so far is that it’s unclear what of interest would be learned, and the opportunity cost to more interesting questions (like, does the language have amount relatives with overt sortals, does it have sluicing with PPs, etc., etc.) is too high.

  38. Richard W said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

    @Wang Yujiang
    Another Chinese dictionary that labels words with their parts of speech is 现代汉语规范词典. Here are a few entries from that dictionary, showing headwords marked as 形, 名, 副, 动 etc.

    背时 ①{形} 过了时的。…
    乐园 ①{名} 基督教指天堂或伊甸园。…
    好生 ①{副} 好好地。…
    荏苒 {动}(时光)在不知不觉中渐渐过去。

  39. Wang Yujiang said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

    @Richard W said,
    Thank you for your examples.
    English dictionaries classify all words in dictionaries individually instead of classify a group of words. However, the dictionary (现代汉语词典 Xiandai Hanyu Cidian) does not mark all headwords (words) as verb, noun, adjective, and so on. In addition, if a word marked as verb, noun, adjective, and so on all together, it does not make sense.
    Anyway, “a few examples from that dictionary” you listed are all a group of words that cannot prove that Chinese dictionaries classify all words individually in the Chinese dictionary.

  40. Richard W said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

    Wang Yujiang wrote that “the dictionary (现代汉语词典 Xiandai Hanyu Cidian) does not mark all headwords (words) as verb, noun, adjective, and so on.”

    That’s right. It’s not all headwords that are marked with the part of speech. The figure is about 95%. In other words, nearly all headwords.* But the issue I was addressing was your claim that “English dictionaries classified words as nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech, but Chinese dictionaries did not.” [my emphasis]

    *The headwords that aren’t labelled with a part of speech in “Xiandai Hanyu Cidian” are typically 成语: four-character idiomatic expressions.

  41. Chris said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 4:48 am

    @Edwin Schmitt: I hope this paper (from 2007) may have advanced the discussion of how Classical Chinese noun syntax might or might not have influenced ontological views “Language and Ontology in Early Chinese Thought.”

    In principle, it’s surely possible that semantic or formal features of a thinker’s language might influence the person’s worldview or philosophical theories. However, establishing that this has happened in a particular case can be very difficult unless the thinker explicitly indicates it has. Even if a particular language were relatively noun- or verb-heavy, the claim that this feature shapes the speakers’ worldview in a significant way would face a heavy argumentative burden.

    Many Classical Chinese words are not usefully classified as nouns or verbs at the level of the word class, since particular instances of the word may function as a noun or verb. Consider you3 有 (having, existing) and wu2 無 (lacking, not-existing). These might seem paradigmatic verbs, but the Daodejing has no problem using them as nouns and claiming that 有無相生 “Having and lacking give rise to each other.” The significance of the noun use — whether it alludes to a substantive, reified conception of existence or is merely a way of generalizing about cases in which things exist — is not determined by the syntactic form. So I’m not convinced that Link’s original claim, if correct, implies very much.

  42. Adrian said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:48 am

    Am I the only one who’s confused by the expression “He pulls the Whorfian punch”?

  43. Bill said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

    That’s Benjamin Lee Whorf, not Lieutenant Worf.
    “Pull” here was used to mean “implement,” as in “she’s always pulling that trick”; though usually in connection with punches “pull” means “refrain from implementing.”

  44. Su-Chong Lim said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 1:31 am

    I know this is a linguistic discussion, but regarding “it is the nature of waves to move”, in high-school physics I encountered a considerable body of study devoted to the characteristics and behaviour of waves that don’t move, variously described as standing waves or stationary waves. It’s not as arcane as you might think; standing waves are seen in vibrating strings, in air columns of musical instruments, and on the surface of liquids in vessels of various configurations subjected to specific vibration circumstances, to name a few common examples, not to mention the apparent static capture of sundry waveforms on oscilloscopes.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 7:43 am

    From Chad Hansen, who is mentioned above as the originator of the mass noun hypothesis:

    The other interesting thing is that a frequency difference could reflect the fact that a) pre-verbal nouns are routinely omitted and b) the instrumental (and its different versions–which in English would be something like prepositions) is verbal as are adjectives. So the simple count is not as significant as it seems.

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