Fluidity and permanence: The English noun and its categories
Valentin A. Videnov
Introduction. Language is the expression of thought, the objectivization of the mind, but it is inevitably more than that. Not only is it the means of communication, where different subjectivities come into contact, thus creating a situation which transcends them; being part and parcel of the larger world, in the very expression of thought it stands in constant reference to this larger world, for thought itself must be triggered by something, and is thus the reflection of reality. Modern semiotics recognizes this. In his A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy Robert S. Corrington writes:
In the larger sense, any use of language, even when it tries to confine itself to discourse about language, describes, evokes, or adumbrates some order within the world other than itself.
Corrington 2000:23
As Parmenides has it, “thinking and that by reason of which thought exists are one and the same thing” (Nahm 1940:117, l. 94). Thus, our attitude to the world of being determines the structures and categories of language.
The first efforts to explain the world in Western Civilization, to formulate in words its characteristic features, come from Ancient Greece, and are the heritage of the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the earliest structures of thought, though surviving only in fragments, which offers a view of the structure of reality, is that of Heraclitus, whom some scholars believe to be the first philosopher proper (for instance, McKirahan 1998). In terms of textual representation, he is indeed the first thinker an extensive number of whose own words has come down to us. True, his words have been called “obscure and dogmatic” (Durant 1952:441), but, given sufficient penetration, they can be recognized as possessing an astounding coherence and insightfulness. Essential to Heraclitus is the idea of the flow of things: “the sum of things flows like a stream”; “[y]ou could not step twice in the same rivers” (Nahm 1940:96, 91, respectively). In his system, individual things are impermanent; they are ever-elusive, and cannot be pointed at, cannot be named. Moreover, even the whole “take[s] place by strife”; fire is the basic element, the common measure (Nahm 1940:91, 90, respectively). All is constantly destroyed and created; it is a process rather than a substance. We can hardly have nouns, which represent something permanent, substantial, individually-formed, given such an emphasis on fluidity.
Bruno Snell, in his original and important work The Discovery of the Mind, tells us that the arrival at the concept of the individual substantive was the result of a long process1. It took some development of thought for it to be able to isolate the permanent, which underlies change; to come to the position that for change to occur, it must necessarily be the change of something, else change itself could not be perceived, could not clearly stand out. Such a view differentiates, in language, the substantive, with its character of pointing to something named, from both the adjective, denoting a quality, and the verb, denoting an action or state, which are the proponents of change. In philosophy, the emphasis on permanence, and the denial of change, came with the Eleatic School, culminating in the writings of Parmenides, an extended portion of whose poem on being is preserved (Nahm 1940:113-119).
For Parmenides, “Being is and [...] it is impossible for it not to be” (Nahm 1940:114, l. 36); “it is universal, existing alone, immovable and without end” (Nahm 1940:115, l. 60). But the position that “[e]ither being exists or it does not exist” (Nahm 1940:116, l. 72) precludes the appreciation of change altogether: if, with Heraclitus, we could not name anything, with Parmenides, we can hardly describe what is, show it as delimited by features (for if it is admitted to be one way, it must then not be any other) or as participating in – whether initiating or suffering – any process whatever. For language to be possible in its fullness, a more balanced approach to fluidity and permanence is necessary; we need to recognize the permanent component in fluid occurrences, and this is what the universal category of the noun stands for – in its subjective syntactic function, it is what we talk about, while by means of adjectives and verbs we do talk about it. In English, however, the noun still manages to show traces of the conflicting views of fluidity and permanence respectively emphasized by Heraclitus and Parmenides2; offers signs of sensitivity to the different elements that it balances within a harmonious world-view. To reveal this is the main aim of the present paper. While dealing with the features of the English noun, it will be in constant reference to – whether agreeing or disagreeing with – the unique work by Jana Molhova The Noun. A Contrastive English-Bulgarian Study (Molhova 1986).
First, it is important to distinguish between the noun as a word (as we will be considering it here) and the noun phrase (NP); as well as between semantic and grammatical categories. Words are members of the lexicon of a given language and as such their meaning is of prime importance – that is what defines them. The meaning of a word is its signification, what it points at or names, an object outside language, a piece of the world. But the relation between word and object is not direct: according to the classic Ogden and Richards triangle and its accompanying scholastic phrase, “vox significat mediantibus conceptibus,” it is our thinking that re-shapes the world before giving it linguistic expression (Ogden and Richards 1946).3. Thus, when we consider words, it is the semantic features contained within them that stand out.
On the other hand, for words to be part of our linguistic behavior, they have to be combined with each other, for linguistic behavior consists of propositions rather than single words. As we know so well, the sentence, not the word, is the basic unit of language. In English particularly, it is never the noun as such, but the noun phrase that occurs in sentences. Not only is the famous formula S = NP + VP true, but in the verb phrase itself we find noun phrases as its components, whether as direct objects and complements (to link verbs), or as parts of a prepositional phrase (an indirect object or adverbial), thus: PP = p + NP.
This syntactic function of the noun as part (and a head at that) of the noun phrase will not concern us here. However, at the level of morphology, we encounter different forms of a word, the enumeration of which gives us its paradigm. It is here that we deal with grammatical, not semantic categories, although, as Jana Molhova points out throughout her work (Molhova 1986), there is a constant interaction between the semantic and the grammatical side of the noun category. Nevertheless, we could claim that the endings, or grammatical markers, as part of the very word are to be necessarily present in order for a grammatical opposition on the morphological level to be present; and by not deviating from this view, could make the situation a little clearer.
We will now consider the semantic categories of the English noun. The opposition proper – common certainly comes first here. A proper noun is one which has (at least supposedly) a direct and unique relation to its referent in a given context: it names one thing, and one thing only. Perhaps this is the fundamental function of a substantive (where a substantive is the fundamental linguistic unit), deriving from a view of the world as full of unique, ultimately significant objects, or, as Aristotle reports Thales’ opinion, a view “that all things are full of gods” (Nahm 1940:62). A common noun, by contrast, is not so easily explained in its functioning. To arrive at the noun table, one has to abstract from any given table and form an idea of tableness for the noun to refer to: neither square nor round, neither stone nor metal. The history of philosophy from Plato (Plato 1997) through Locke (Locke 1975) to Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein 1922; Wittgenstein 1953) is fraught with the problems of this abstracting, but they will not concern us here. For us, it is important that the English noun is not really a permanent member of either category, even if “originating,” as though, from one of them. (Thus, “Jim” – “Jims,” “a Jim”; “a moon,” “moons” – “Oh, moon...” – see Molhova 1986:35-38.)4 The category distinction being particularly strong, as we pointed out above, however, this shifting ability of the English noun is the first sign of the fluidity hidden behind its nominal permanence.
Further, common nouns are semantically subdivided into concrete and abstract. We saw that common nouns are already abstract in their reference. On the other hand, proper nouns are intrinsically concrete, as they point to an existing object5. What is, then, the basis of the concrete – abstract distinction? Is it perhaps in our perception, which distinguishes “a tree” that we can touch and see from “love” that we can argue about and vaguely feel?6 It seems, thinking more linguistically, that the ability to participate in indefinite and definite noun phrases which can oppose one another is the special characteristic of the concrete noun; for instance:
I want to plant a tree in my garden
as against,

The tree that I planted in my garden bore fruit this year.
When it becomes a member of an indefinite or a definite noun phrase, an abstract noun becomes concrete; for instance:

I felt a great love for her,
as against,

The love that I felt for her made me marry her.
This is in fact what matters for us here: again English nouns are flexible in respect to their concrete/abstract meaning, and particularly so: “English nouns shift from concrete to abstract and vice versa with greater ease than the Bulgarian nouns” (Molhova 1986:40, see also 41).

Lastly, concrete nouns in English can be subdivided into countable and uncountable (or mass)7. This is indeed an important distinction. A countable noun refers to an object in isolation from its surroundings; in order for there to be countability, we must have a unit. (Just as having an individual precludes subdivision.) An isolated object may consist of parts, but they are so integrated within it as to make it one. An uncountable noun, on the other hand, refers to some undifferentiated substance with no easily perceived or intuited boundaries (the talk of individuals being impossible in this case). Thus, “a chair” – “soil.” Consequently, in order to count a mass noun, we need some sort of container to serve as a unit: “a bottle of wine.” As important as this distinction is, English nouns have – and this should not be surprising at this point – various ways of crossing it (see Molhova 1986:42). To name two, the countable use of an otherwise uncountable noun can mean “different kinds of” or “a great quantity of” (Molhova 1986:93, 94, respectively). The conclusion obtrudes itself that the semantic component of English nouns, which governs their participation in different semantic oppositions, is very flexible due to “the lack or scarcity of morphological markers” (Molhova 1986:43). It is obviously this lack of grammatical expression of the semantic features that makes the shifting of the English noun from one semantic category to another possible, as we shall see while considering its grammatical categories..
It is very common to talk about case with English nouns, dividing them into nominative (also common) and genitive (possessive); hence the well-known paradigmatic table: “-0° – -s // -'s – -s'” (Molhova 1986:32).8. This view, however, is wrong, and that for two reasons. First, talking about cases is justified where there really exists a paradigm of oblique case endings other than the (usually) unmarked Nominative Singular, for instance the Latin first declension paradigm -a, -ae, -ae, -am, -ā; -ae, -arum, -is, -as, -is. It is hardly justified to talk about case as a category where only one real “case” other than the nominative can be isolated. Secondly, the so-called genitive in English is a kind of noun phrase rather than a kind of noun, thus being a syntactic rather than a morphological category. Take the following as evidence. We know that the genitive functions as a determiner rather than a modifier in the noun phrase, and as a determiner, it makes the noun phrase definite. So the first, rather than the second, example should represent the correct analysis:This view, however, is wrong, and that for two reasons. First, talking about cases is justified where there really exists a paradigm of oblique case endings other than the (usually) unmarked Nominative Singular, for instance the Latin first declension paradigm -a, -ae, -ae, -am, -ā; -ae, -arum, -is, -as, -is. It is hardly justified to talk about case as a category where only one real “case” other than the nominative can be isolated. Secondly, the so-called genitive in English is a kind of noun phrase rather than a kind of noun, thus being a syntactic rather than a morphological category. Take the following as evidence. We know that the genitive functions as a determiner rather than a modifier in the noun phrase, and as a determiner, it makes the noun phrase definite. So the first, rather than the second, example should represent the correct analysis:
the   new clothes
Jim's   new clothes
the boy's   new clothes
as against,
the   new clothes
Jim's   new clothes
the* the boy's new clothes
As there is always one determiner to a noun, clearly “the” in the respective third lines belongs with “boy”, not with “clothes” (thus, (((the boy)'s) new clothes), if we assume that a GP = NP + 's [or ' after s]); and if there is no “the” before “Jim's” (in the respective second lines) it is because a proper noun = NP. Our conclusion, then, is that in English, “genitive” (and case in general) is a syntactic, not a morphological category, and its consideration does not properly belong here.
A true nominal category, which is however only partly grammatical, is gender. The gender of English nouns follows from their extralinguistic reference; there are no arbitrary endings which inflexibly assign them to one gender or another, while, by contrast, “[t]he gender of a Greek noun,” for instance, “is almost always a consequence of its form alone” (Venable 1989:35). As there are commonly no grammatical markers for the gender of English nouns, we infer their semantic gender from the pronoun substitution: “he” for a masculine noun, “she” for a feminine, and “it” for a neuter one (see Molhova 1986:68-74, and particularly 70-71). Thus, “brother” and “sister” are unmistakably masculine and feminine respectively, while “teacher” can be either masculine or feminine as the case may be, but not both at the same time. When we do not know what the case is, or with such indefinite words as “person,” the substitution has become increasingly problematic, the feminist movement undermining the automatic use of a masculine referent, and leading to the tedious “he or she” or even to an outright “she”10.
If “he” and “she” entailing masculinity or femininity are reserved for animate, usually human nouns, “it,” which marks the absence of sex or an inanimate object, can sometimes be used instead of them. But there is a great difference here in our consideration of the object referred to by the noun: a neuter “it” implies a lack of interest and concern, while assigning a feminine/masculine gender – the contrary. Jana Molhova is not right then when she says, “In English the noun cat is considered neuter, in spite of the fact that every cat is either male or female” (Molhova 1986:71). “Cat” is substituted with “it” only when we do not really care about it; when it refers to our pet, we would normally use “he” or “she” to show endearment.
A whimsical comment from an essay by the great English humorist Jerome K. Jerome comes to mind here:11 talking about babies to their mothers (an extreme case of concern), it is not at all indifferent which pronoun substitution you use – the right sex must be assigned, “the enormity of alluding to a male babe as 'she' being only equaled by the atrocity of referring to a female infant as 'he.'” “And, as you value your fair name,” the writer adds, “do not attempt to get out of the difficulty by talking of 'it'” (Jerome 1982:91). Thus, assigning a gender – by pronoun substitution – to an animate noun is important, as it marks our attitude to it. But we are only free to assign one or another gender in such cases because English nouns are not invariably gender-determined by formal markers. It is, again, the lack of grammatical endings which makes them flexible.
For the same reason, the opposite – assigning a masculine or feminine gender to neuter (inanimate) nouns – is also possible in English. Noticing this fluctuation in terms of gender, Jana Molhova writes: “So it is comparatively easy for a feature of sex to be introduced into nouns not having it in their semantic component” (Molhova 1986:73). On the following page, she gives three examples worth considering: names of countries, names of boats (both given a feminine gender when personified), and the personification of some words under the influence of Greek mythology: sun, etc. ... he; moon, etc. ... she. Why it should be the feminine rather than the masculine that is used with nouns of the first two groups I am not prepared to discuss here, even though I found a corresponding use of the feminine for a noun not belonging to Molhova's groups, as well as for an abstract “that,” where “it” is certainly expected, in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men: “Don't build up no more fire. We'll let her die down” (Steinbeck 1975:17);
I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.
Steinbeck 1975:103
Perhaps the mechanism is endearment – thought of femininity – personification – use of feminine referent – implied feminine gender of the noun (or, in the last example, demonstrative).
The mythological personification is more easily explained, as Greek words do have a gender built within them (recall Venable's words quoted above). However, the absence of a grammatical marker as part of the English noun makes it possible to offer another personification, based on a different mythology. Thus, the myth/world-maker Tolkien attaches such a note to one of his songs in The Lord of the Rings, “*Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She,” to make a pronominal reference clear (Tolkien 1965:218). It appears as though the fluidity of thought and tradition is exemplified here, and this fluidity is rooted in the English word that normally stands for permanence: the noun.
All the above discussion of the gender of English nouns has referred to semantic rather than grammatical features. In fact, the only vestiges of gender as a grammatical category of the noun in English are the endings -ess, -ix, and -ette12, which mark a feminine noun in opposition to a masculine one: actor – actress, executor – executrix, usher – usherette. Not only are these gender markers of limited application, but they have become increasingly rare, with the exception of some titles denoting nobility such as “princess” and “duchess.”
It is number, then, which is the only fully developed grammatical category of the English noun13. In its realization, the category of number is tied to the semantic category of countability, since a noun has to be countable for it to appear in the plural. It is number, also, which reveals the shift between countable and uncountable in the semantic structure of some nouns that we already referred to (“fishes,” “sands”).
We will not here deal with all the intricacies of number oppositions in English, as they have already been dealt with at great length by Molhova (Molhova 1986:79-114). We will only consider formal endings – the feature which makes this nominal category grammatical. In the cases where we have both a singular and a plural form, and it is the plural which is marked, the ending is by far -s/-es (pronounced /s/, /z/, /Iz/). “[T]he morpheme –en,” “synonymous with the morpheme –s” (Molhova 1986:82), is confined to only a few words, and so are the root-vowel changes, considered by most grammars as exceptions to the basic 0° – -s opposition. (The variant ending -es can be treated under spelling rules together with the -y > -i- and -f(e) > -v- changes.)
A special “endings” problem in English is the status of the foreign (mostly Latin) endings, which are still to be encountered in scientific and scholarly texts. It is true that there is a shift with some of these words to the use of an ordinary English plural ending (always -s) for their plural forms, but others still persist in having only the proper Latin plural as the acceptable form. Molhova treats this problem at some length, trying to prove
that the linguistic intuition of the native speaker of English based on the unmarked and marked forms of the noun, considers the form of the singular as having a zero ending because the Latin paradigmatic suffixes are meaningless to him.
Molhova 1986:84-85
However, in all of these pairs, we remove an ending to add a different one, so that it should be clear to the user that both forms are marked instead of imagining something like “a zero ending” for the singular; and anyway, we would expect of a speaker who uses these contrastive pairs at all to be aware of their origin.14 Furthermore, the example with the paradigm of datum which Molhova gives is rather misleading, as the Accusative and Nominative forms coincide here only because it is neuter. We can, then, add the foreign plurals as a special case of a grammatical marker in English, where the singular member of the nominal opposition is also marked.
Another point that Molhova makes in her consideration of the category of number, concerning the plural of gerunds and verbal substantives (Molhova 1986:94-95) is especially relevant to our treatment of the English noun here. A gerund denotes an activity, and as an activity implies constant change, it can hardly be captured by a nominal expression and made subject to its categories. A verbal substantive, one step further from the gerund (while identical with it in form) on the path from the verb to the noun, on the other hand, denotes not an activity, but its result, and so can be nominally treated, including the formation of its plural. In both examples that Molhova gives, “writing – writings” and “painting – paintings,” the plurals presuppose a meaning in the singular not of process but of its product, of act rather than fact: not as in,
John’s writing/painting was interrupted
but as in,

John’s writing/painting was impressive.
And if “painting” sounds more like a verbal substantive (if not a noun proper) and “writing” more like a gerund, it is because they are formally identical – due to the scarcity of endings in English – that both act and fact, process and result, which are from a philosophical point of view inseparable in every consideration of the world, lurk balanced in them both.
We could even move further back in -ing forms and think whether the present participle in English, adjectival in nature, is not substantivized in the verbal via the gerund. Bear in mind that all these forms are identical and their interpretation as a participle, a gerund, or a verbal is exactly an interpretation. Furthermore, some adjectives denoting quality can also be substantivized in English, remaining the same in form: “the poor,” etc. And quality is rather like a state if not an activity (and thus deeply verbal in nature) in that it is thought of and posited as separable from, as superimposed on, its carrier, the noun, the underlying, the permanent. Not surprisingly, the opposite is the case as well:
it is not very difficult for a noun to lose its substantival nature and acquire adjectival features. This is additionally supported in English by the lack of morphological markers of the adjective and the very few morphological markers of the noun.
Molhova 1986:49
Conclusion. However, the most important evidence for the balance between fluidity and permanence as fundamental elements of the world that the English noun exemplifies, is the phenomenon of conversion and its particular importance in English: the direct linking of nouns and verbs.15. Beside partial conversion16,very often the very same word can function in English as both a noun and a verb. What is more, the vestigial nominal and verbal paradigms are similar in that the -s marker for plural coincides in form with the marker for 3rd person singular in the present down to the spelling rules, giving the neat (from a didactic point of view) opposition, “The studentø works hard” – “The students workø hard.”
Again, we will not go over the different cases of conversion, painstakingly enumerated by Molhova (Molhova 1986:172-173). Nor will we try – at least here – to argue with her exaggerated recourse to homonymy. Instead, we will conclude with her analysis of the word walk (conversion from verb to noun): “the result of the process of walking which always accompanies this process” (Molhova 1986:172). For there to be change, it must be the change of some things; just as for there to be things, they must be differentiated from one another, and so subject to change. The English noun with all its categories causes this most fundamental principle to stand out, thus making us once again aware of it.

1 Here are some of his words:
the development of the definite article from the demonstrative pronoun via the specific article into the generic article made possible the linguistic formation of substantive nouns. These are the stable objects of thought for philosophy and science.
Snell 1953:227-230; quoted in Hahn 2001:275, n. 23
2For the fragments of Heraclitus and Parmenides, see also http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenides.pdf and http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenides.pdf [both accessed 2003], where the Greek text of Diels (Diels and Kranz 1951-1952) is given.
3For a discussion of the triangle, see http://www.frame-poythress.org/Poythress_books/GCBI/Bg16RefO.htm [accessed 2008].
4Consider also: “From the linguistic point of view one wonders after all whether the distinction common – proper nouns has not been exaggerated” (Molhova 1986:38).
5“Every proper noun and every appellative is inevitably concrete” (Molhova 1986:42).
6See Berkeley’s vehement criticism of Locke’s abstract ideas in The Principles of Human Knowledge (Berkeley 1965:41-128).
7As abstract nouns are by rule uncountable, and proper nouns – as we mentioned already – concrete, the scheme proper/common – abstract/concrete – countable/mass does not seem as clear-cut as it is usually thought to be.
8In her work the morphological category of case is assumed throughout.
9Consider the explanation in a modern grammar book for native speakers:
both PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES (PP) AND GENITIVE PHRASES (GP) may be thought of as NPs with an extra particle or marker added to them. [...] The difference between them is that the preposition is added to the front of the PP, whereas the genitive marker ('s) is added to the end of the GP. Also the genitive marker, spelt 's or ', behaves more like a suffix than a separate word.
Leech et al. 1982:57-58, see also 65
10In Amartya Sen's recent Development as Freedom for instance (Sen 1999).
11In reference to another example from Molhova's book:
The nouns child, baby form a separate group: The child (the baby) is crying. She is a good child (baby). He is a good child (baby). It is a good child (baby).
Molhova 1986:72
12The last missing in Molhova (see Molhova 1986:71).
13Compare the following:
With the English noun number is the category coming closest to the definition of a grammatical category. Every noun in English appears or may appear in two forms: unmarked, with a meaning of singularity and marked – with a meaning of plurality.
Molhova 1986:34
14The pairs genus – genera and species – species – both omitted by Molhova, as well as the rare status – statūs – are very frequent in the biological domain where some knowledge of Latin is expected.
15For this prominence of conversion in English, see Molhova 1986:170-171 and Quirk et al. 1972:1009, quoted there.
16Whether by voicing of the final consonant in the verb words or by forward-shifting of stress in the noun words (see Molhova 1986:175).
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