Noun: Syntactic functions

June 8th, 20128:24 am


Noun: Syntactic functions

Fairly obviously word order is an alternative to case marking in distin­guishing subject from object in English, as well as in languages like Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian, all of which use the Subject-Verb-Object or­der as their unmarked option. In English the word order also distinguishes the patient object (i.e. direct object) from the recipient or beneficiary object (i.e. indirect object) in double object constructions where the patient object always follows the other object: She gave me a letter, She cut me a bunch of dahlias.

There is a correlation between the presence of case marking on noun phrases for the subject-object distinction and flexible word order. It would also appear from some studies that there is a tendency lor languages that mark the subject-object distinction on noun phrases to have a basic Subject-Object-Verb order, and conversely a tendency for languages lacking such a distinction to have the Subject-Verb-Object order. Interestingly, that “caseless” languages with the Subject-Verb-Object word order are concentrated in Western Europe (e.g. English), southern Africa (e.g. Swahili) and east and southeast Asia (e.g. Chinese and Vietnamese)

Word order is important for “caseless” languages, since it is word order that determines which of the numerous syntactic functions a noun performs in the sentence. It usually occupies the position of the subject and the object: The children were playing. I will look after the children.

The noun may also be part of the predicate functioning as a predica­tive: You will be a goalkeeper.

It has been mentioned above that the English noun is peculiar in that it is capable of functioning as an attribute without any form change: a silk dress, the speed limit, death sentence, salary rise. There is no unanimity in viewpoints among linguists on this issue. Some scholars see in these at­tributive word combinations spontaneously formed compound words. It is arguable that though these combinations are actually close to a compound, still a word is a stable language unit that can hardly be formed and broken up spontaneously.

Other linguists believe that in this position a noun transforms into an adjective. The latter point of view is frequently reflected in dictionaries, where one may find the following entries: silk, n., a. It is based on the occa­sional use of a noun in the attributive function. The proponents of this point of view consider that this usage is sufficient to move a word into a differ­ent part of speech. However, it is quite obvious that, besides the attributive function, a noun does not acquire any other adjectival peculiarities: it can neither form any degrees of comparison nor be modified by adverbs.

The problem of noun – adjective differentiation is usually referred to as “stone-wall” problem, since the word combination stone-wall is a classical example of this controversy. In modern linguistics the “stone-wall” pattern is believed to be a combination with a noun in the function of an attribute.

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