Subcategorization of nouns: semantic classification

March 6th, 201210:24 am


Subcategorization of nouns: semantic classification

Almost any part of speech may undergo further differentiation into sub­groups. One of the traditional categorizations of the noun consists of the two large classes – proper nouns and common nouns. It should be noted that proper nouns have been usually overlooked by linguists, since their lexical meaning is difficult to investigate. Both philosophers and linguists could not arrive at a unanimous conclusion. Philosophers claim that, in comparison with common nouns, proper nouns have no semantic meaning. This state­ment was quite convincingly supported by the following example. If one sees in a cage two identical animals and one knows that one of the animals is a tiger, then, if the second animal does not in any way differ from the first, one may absolutely correctly call the second animal “tiger”. However, if one knows that one of the tigers is called Stripy, it does not at all mean that the second tiger’s name is also Stripy. In other words, a common noun may be used with certain regularity, conditioned by its lexical meaning, whereas a proper noun is not characterized by this predictable regularity. Despite this rather convincing argument, it is not sufficient to deny entirely a lexi­cal meaning of proper nouns. The given example proves only that semantic content of common and proper nouns is different. Many modern linguists share this point of view. For instance, the proper nouns Andrew, Andreas convey information concerning nationalities of the persons; the proper nouns Peter and Sarah indicate the sex difference.

A grammatical subcategorization of proper nouns also appears to be possible. From this viewpoint, in Modern English proper nouns fall into two groups: 1) nouns that are used without any article, and 2) nouns that may function both with and without an article. For example, the definite article with a family name in plural signifies reference to the whole family. Some geographical names (toponyms) may be used with or without the defi­nite article depending on geographical objects they name, e.g. the Missouri refers to the river, Missouri – to a state. Obviously, in this case adequate understanding is greatly influenced by presence or absence of the article.

A further differentiation of common nouns is also based on semantics. Here, four classes are distinguished: 1) class nouns, 2) collective nouns, 3) nouns of material, and 4) abstract nouns.

Class nouns denote persons or things belonging to a class. These nouns are countable: shop, table, tree.

Collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) denote a number or collection of similar individuals or things regarded as a single unit: police, machinery, people, cattle, family, nation, fasherati, journarati, glitterati (young and successful), the Establishment/the Overclass (politicians, business people, officials,), smackerati (celebrities who became drug addicts), jazzerati (jazz musicians).

Nouns of material denote various substances and are usually uncountables: iron, tea, paper, wine.

It is difficult to define abstract nouns, as the criteria for this division are rather vague. As a rule, abstract nouns are said to denote some quality, state, action or idea, therefore abstract nouns must be by definition uncountable: kindness, fight, time. However, English grammar establishes lax require­ments to abstract nouns. As a result, this group also includes such countable nouns as, for example, idea.

Besides the classification mentioned above, it is necessary to consider the classification based on the semantic volume of nouns. The vast major­ity of nouns is comprised of words similar to man, state, house, river, etc. that have a definite lexical meaning and denote a definite type of entities, persons, concepts and so on. These words are opposed to words that acquire a lexical meaning within a certain context, whereas without a context they are deprived of any lexical content. The noun thing belongs to this group as well as its colloquial variants thingamajig, thingamabob, thingummy and thingumibob. Any of these so-called general nouns can function as a count­able non-animate noun (Nunan). As a rule, they occur in speech to replace a word that the speaker has never known or forgets at the moment of speaking. In other words, the meaning of these nouns is always revealed in context:

A: Did you try the steamed buns?

B: Yes, I didn’t like the things much.

Some linguists believe that the noun thing is semantically empty. Ac­cording to this point of view, thing and its variants perform the function of substitution, as these nouns are used not to name a certain entity but to fill in a nounal position in a syntactic pattern.

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