The discovery of nouns
- Classification of nouns in English
- Nouns and pronouns
Semantic vs. grammatical number
1. Number in specific languages
2. Obligatoriness of number marking
3. Number agreement
4. Types of number
The discovery of nouns
The word "noun" comes from the latin nomen meaning "name." Word classes like nouns were first described by Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini and ancient Greeks like Dionysios Thrax, and defined in terms of their morphological properties. For example, in Ancient Greek, nouns can be inflected for grammatical case, such as dative or accusative. Verbs, on the other hand, can be inflected for tenses, such as past, present or future, while nouns cannot. Aristotle also had a notion of onomata (nouns) and rhemata (verbs) which, however, does not exactly correspond our notions of verbs and nouns. In her dissertation, Vinokurova has a more detailed discussion of the historical origin of the notion of a noun.
Different definitions of nouns
Expressions of natural language will have properties at different levels. They have formal properties, like what kinds of morphological prefixes or suffixes they can take, and what kinds of other expressions they can combine with. but they also have semantic properties, i.e. properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of nouns on the top of this page is thus a formal definition. That definition is uncontroversial, and has the advantage that it allows us to effectively distinguish nouns from non-nouns. However, it has the disadvandage that it does not apply to nouns in all languages. For example in Russian, there are no definite articles, so one cannot define nouns by means of those. There are also several attempts of defining nouns in terms of their semantic properties. Many of these are controversial, but some are discussed below.
Names for things
In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, or idea, etc. This is a semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being quite uninformative. Part of the problem is that the definition makes use of relatively general nouns ("thing," "phenomenon," "event") to define what nouns are. The existence of such general nouns shows us that nouns are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of expressions are also organized in hierarchies. For example all of the verbs "stroll," "saunter," "stride," and "tread" are more specific words than the more general "walk." The latter is more specific than the verb "move." But it is unlikely that such hierarchies can be used to define nouns and verbs. Furthermore, an influential theory has it that verbs like "kill" or "die" refer to events, and so they fall under the definition. Similarly, adjectives like "yellow" or "difficult" might be thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like "outside" or "upstairs" seem to refer to places. Worse still, a trip into the woods can be referred to by the verbs "stroll" or "walk." But verbs, adjectives and adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren't verbs. So the definition is not particularly helpful in distinguishing nouns from other parts of speech.
Prototypically referential expressions
Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically referential. That definition is also not very helpful in distinguishing actual nouns from verbs. But it may still correctly identify a core property of nounhood. For example, we will tend to use nouns like "fool" and "car" when we wish to refer to fools and cars, respectively. The notion that this is prototypocal reflects the fact that such nouns can be used, even though nothing with the corresponding property is referred to:
John is no fool.
If I had a car, I'd go to Marakech.
The first sentence above doesn't refer to any fools, nor does the second one refer to any particular car.
Predicates with identity criteria
The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a very subtle semantic definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like "same" can modify nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives. Not only that, but there also doesn't seem to exist any other expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider the following examples.
Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.
There is no English adverb "samely." In some other languages, like Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to "samely." Hence, in Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain this, if nouns denote logical predicate with identity criteria. An identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that "person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2." Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is due to Gupta:
National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.
Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn't. It is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus, the way that we count passengers isn't necessarily the same as the way that we count persons. Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you may correspond to two distinct passengers, even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity criteria, see Gupta.
Recently, the linguist Mark Baker has proposed that Geach's definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are "prototypically referential" because they are all and only those parts of speech that provide identity criteria. Baker's proposals are quite new, and linguists are still evaluating them.
Classification of nouns in English
Proper nouns and common nouns
Proper nouns (also called proper names) are the names of unique entities. For example, "Janet", "Jupiter" and "Germany" are proper nouns. Proper nouns are usually capitalized in English and most other languages that use the Latin alphabet, and this is one easy way to recognise them. However, in German nouns of all types are capitalized. The convention of capitalizing all nouns was previously used in English, but has long fallen into disuse.
All other nouns are called common nouns. For example, "girl", "planet", and "country" are common nouns.
Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper noun, where one such entity is special. For example: "There can be many gods, but there is only one God." This is somewhat magnified in Hebrew where EL means god (as in a god), God (as in the God), and El (the name of a particular Canaanite god).
The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example, someone might be named "Tiger Smith" despite being neither a tiger nor a smith. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between languages, although they may be transliterated. For example, the German surname Knödel becomes Knodel or Knoedel in English (not the literal Dumpling). However, the translation of placenames and the names of monarchs, popes, and non-contemporary authors is common and sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa becomes Lisbon in English; the English London becomes Londres in French; and the Greek Aristotelēs becomes Aristotle in English.
Count nouns and mass nouns
Count nouns (or countable nouns) are common nouns that can take a plural, can combine with numerals or quantifiers (e.g. "one", "two", "several", "every", "most"), and can take an indefinite article ("a" or "an"). Examples of count nouns are "chair", "nose", and "occasion".
Mass nouns (or non-countable nouns) differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they can't take plural or combine with number words or quantifiers. Examples from English include "laughter", "cutlery", "helium", and "furniture". For example, it is not possible to refer to "a furniture" or "t