Thursday, August 4, 2011

Verbing our Nouns so we can Noun our Verbs

You may have heard of the linguistic trend referred to as the 'verbing of nouns.'  An entertaining poem addressing this can be found here, and I highly recommend it both for the amusement to be derived from it and for its way of illustrating this trend.

A lot of people hate it.  My mom cringes whenever she hears of someone 'gifting' something to another person, and if anyone referred to the act of creating different sound waves in aesthetically pleasing patterns as musicking, I'd surely bash them with a guitar - partly because I don't own a guitar, so I wouldn't lose an instrument.  However, I was thinking about this trend this morning, and ultimately I think it's a good thing.

The Hebrew language, relatively ancient compared to the upstart European languages that have swept their way across the globe in the last quarter of an age, can be etymologically traced back to word roots which were all verbs.  Nouns, adjectives, and words serving as other parts of speech were derived from verbs whose meaning pertained to the new word.  A very similar process can be seen in the derivation of English words like 'computer,' 'overseer,' 'recipient,' and 'advocate' (which is spelled the same in its noun form as in its verb form, though pronounced differently in my dialect), as well as in the more  obvious cases of gerunds and participles.  It's very convenient to have these processes for making nouns out of verbs, otherwise we wouldn't be able to talk about what, for instance, was in the swimmer's refrigerator without a few dependent clauses.  Anyone who opposes this way of making new words in an age of invention is probably either a madman or a Luddite.

But that's not the trend this article is about - coining new words from verb forms is quite an entrenched process.  What concerns people these days is the coining of new verbs from other words.  I think the concern is primarily aesthetic.  Since 'gift' (if it's not derived from the German word for poison) is probably derived from 'to give', the idea of the trend coming full circle so that 'to gift' becomes a verb with basically the same meaning as the verb which 'gift' is derived from seems repugnant and Newspeak-ish.  It'd be like is someone told us that they 'dryered' their clothes, choosing that word because of the device used in the process.

However, in moments of less shortsightedness, I see something beautiful on the horizon.  The faster we verb our nouns, the sooner we can noun our verbs.  I believe there's a spiral in linguistic development, where we switch from turning one part of speech into another to just the other way around.  All the while we're making progress, so it's more like the way we alternate between our legs while we're walking than going around in a circle.  Or you could view it as an orbit - as the Sun travels through the galaxy, the Earth orbits around it, so that sometimes it seems we're regressing (going against the direction of the Sun's motion) but other times we're moving even faster in the right direction.

And the truth is, we desperately need to noun our verbs again, especially with the realizations of contemporary physics and mysticism about the nature of reality.  More or less as David Bohm puts it, what we refer to using nouns are like whirlpools in a stream.  What we identify with a noun isn't some static 'stuff' that remains as inert as our assumptions about nouns imply, but a process acting upon the basic constituents of the universe.  This is particularly noteworthy with living organisms, given that you replace nearly every particle that constitutes you over the course of a decade of metabolism.  However, it also applies to things that seem more static in the mesosphere.  Even a chair is more identifiable by the way the stuff of the universe is held together than by what stuff is held together - though you'd be hard-pressed to get me to sit in one made of plutonium.

What I'm trying to get at is that right now, we've got things somewhat backwards - instead of viewing our nouns as instantiations of verbs, we're making new verbs that are tied to nouns for their meaning.  But I don't think there's any solution before it besides letting the tides of linguistic change ebb and flow as they will.  The more nouns we verb, the sooner we'll start swinging the other direction.

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