Gloriously Wacky English–Part 4: Grammar 2: Parts of Speech

Leave a comment

To continue our discussion of the peculiarities of English, I thought it might be good to look at our “Parts of Speech.”

Parts of Speech in World Languages

The rather odd term Part of Speech is the common name for a word class, a lexical class, or a lexical category. It divides our vocabulary up into groups of words that have the same function in syntax (Greek: σύνταξις “arrangement”). Syntax includes the rules, norms, etc., for the arrangement of words to form sentences in a language.

Virtually all human languages have nouns and verbs, but there are many variations after that. For example, Japanese has three classes of adjectives, which are thought of as separate parts of speech. Japanese, Korean and Chinese have Nominal Classifiers.

Noun Classifiers

Noun Classifiers are words that indicate what kind of thing is being referred to. Here are some examples from Wikipedia of Mandarin Chinese classifiers:

  • 3-ge xuesheng (三個學生) lit. “3 human-classifier of student” — 3 students
  • 3-ke shu (三棵樹) lit. “3 tree-classifier of tree” — 3 trees
  • 3-zhi niao (三隻鳥) lit. “3 bird-classifier of bird” — 3 birds
  • 3-tiao he (三條河) lit. “3 long-wavy-shape of river” — 3 rivers
Pien Wen-chi, Three Friends and A Hundred Birds

Pien Wen-chi, Three Friends and A Hundred Birds (1413)


English does not have this part of speech, but there are a few nouns that fill this function in specialized cases:

  • Ranchers say: “Three head of cattle”  (head = Cattle classifier)
  • Florists say:  “Five stem of roses”  (stem = Rose classifier)
  • We all say:  “Three pair(s) of pants/socks/gloves/shorts/glasses/ear-muffs.” (pair = apparel classifier for items that come in twos for our feet, legs, hands, arms, eyes, ears–everything we have two of). It is also used for other things that come in pairs: scissors, chopsticks, etc.
Six Head of Cattle

Six Head of Cattle


French is similar in this regard:

  • Une tête de bétail (= a head of cattle)
  • Une paire de lunettes/jumelles/gants/chaussures/baguettes (a pair of glasses/binoculars/gloves/shoes/chopsticks…things that come in pairs)
  • Une botte de radis (= a boot) of radishes)
  • Un pied de roses (a foot [for trees/berries] of roses)

Related to this is our rather lengthy (and sometimes humorous) list of Collective Nouns for all kinds of things. The most common are  “a brood of chickens,” “a flock of birds,” “a herd of sheep/cattle, etc.” These are actually rudimentary Noun Classes rather than Classifiers.

There are also many more colorful and fanciful ones which have various origins, sometimes alliterative. These originate in the Mediaeval English hunting tradition, called venery. We have:

  • A Congregation of Alligators
  • An Army of Ants
  • A Troop of Apes
  • A Cloud of Bats
  • A Bench of Bishops — I didn’t know they hunted Bishops…well I guess the Romans before Constantine did, Henry VIII did, and the Communists did, tragically.
  • A Hastiness of Cooks — Gordon Ramsey hunts cooks!
  • A Murder of Crows
  • A Gaggle of Geese
  • An Exaltation of Larks
  • A Pod of Pelicans
  • A Nest of Vipers
  • A Pack of Wolves
  • And so forth…
Tree With Crows

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Tree With Crows

The system has been expanded several times in history, notably:

Lists of Parts of Speech

The first mention of Parts of Speech that we know of comes from the work of the Sanskrit grammarian Yāska in the 5th-6th Centuries BCE. He defined four classes of words:

  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Words Expressing the relationships between nouns and verbs
  • Words qualifying nouns or verbs

Plato refers only to nouns and verbs in the Cratylus, and Aristotle adds Conjunctions, which included our conjunctions, pronouns and the article–Greek has only one. Dionysius Thrax’s work, Art of Grammar (Τέχνη Γραμματική) (2nd Century BCE) introduces 8 categories:

  • Noun
  • Verb
  • Participle (Verbal Nouns/Adjectives)
  • Interjection
  • Pronoun
  • Preposition
  • Adverb
  • Conjunction

Surprisingly to us today, the Adjective was not recognized as a separate part of speech until Nicolas Beauzée did so in 1767 in his Grammaire générale, ou exposition raisonnée des éléments nécessaires du langage (General Grammar, or a Rational Explanation of the Necessary Elements of Language).

Grammar School, Milpitas CA

Grammar School, Milpitas CA

The traditional list of English parts of speech follows the European model, with the 8 parts of speech we all learned in school:

  • Noun
  • Pronoun
  • Adjective (includes Articles)
  • Verb
  • Adverb
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction
  • Interjection/Exclamation

How the Parts of Speech Are Effective…

We also teach Latin, Greek and many other languages using the same categories. They work well for Latin and Greek for example. In Latin, a noun is a noun is a noun. The same word is never a verb. The root of the word (its meaning) can be transformed by inflections into other parts of speech, but they are distinct. Let’s look at Lux “light.”

If you recall one of our previous discussions, Lux comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *lewk- “white, light, bright.” Lux is always a noun. The related verb is luceo “to shine.” The derived adjective is lūcidus, “clear, bright, shining.” In other words, the root is turned into different parts of speech by modifying its form. In Latin, only adjectives can be used as another part of speech, when they are employed as Substantives:  Boni:  “the good men,” “Bonae: “the good women,” Bona: “the good things” (nominative plural M/F/N). Latin can do this because of the grammatical categories of gender and number.

…And Not So Effective!

Not so in English! Let’s take the word “Baby.” We would usually think of this as a noun:  “Take care of the Baby.” But it can also exercise the function of an adjective, with no change in form:  “Baby Carriage.” It can also be a verb:  “Don’t Baby me!”  This could mean, “Don’t treat me like a Baby,” or “Don’t say ‘Baby…’ to me as if everything is OK!” The latter would be more clearly stated in writing as “Don’t ‘baby’ me!” In speech, the first meaning would be indicated by normal inflection of the voice for “Baby” in the verb function and position. The second would probably be indicated by a short pause before and after “Baby” and perhaps a slight raising of the voice.

Claus Ableiter, Historical Baby Carriage

Claus Ableiter, Historical Baby Carriage

English is remarkably flexible in this regard, making it even more difficult for non-native speakers to master, but also probably contributing to its popularity as a second language. We make verbs, adjectives, and sometimes other parts of speech out of many nouns. It’s not always considered “proper” English, but it works.

  • We will grandfather him in.  (Here, “grandfather” is a bare infinitive.)
  • Isn’t that a beautiful Grandfather Clock! (= Adjective)

We also inflect the noun with verb, adjective, or adverb endings, more like Latin:

  • Grandfatherly = adverb
  • Grandfatherish = adjective
  • “We’ve Grandfathered in as many as we can.” = verb / participle

We can also get very playful in informal speech:

“‘Yikes! We’ve been Enron-ed!’ exclaimed the people of the West Coast when their lights went out.”

The adults in the room will recognize this as an analogy with the kind of language we don’t use in front of our Mothers…but this is a family-friendly blog and we won’t go into that.

The Real Scoop

They don’t teach all this in schools, unless you take university courses in Linguistics. This is the real structure of English (and other languages) in which words are categorized by function rather than by rigid Parts of Speech. Although there are disputes, the Wikipedia list of Function categories is fairly good. These include Open Word Classes, those which are susceptible to modification of function, either by position or by changes in form, and also can and are added to on a regular basis.

Open word classes:

For example, we have recently brought new words into English. “Truthiness,” (Thank you Stephen Colbert!), the “Buffyverse” (the universe where Buffy and Angel take place). The Oxford English Dictionary regularly alerts us of new additions, including recently, dataveillance, geotagging, and the Australian boofy (describing big, strong but not very bright men–”Strong as an Ox, and as bright as one too!”).

David Shankbone, Stephen Colbert in NYC

David Shankbone, Stephen Colbert in NYC

Then there are the Closed Word Classes, ones that are not normally susceptible to modification or addition:

Closed word classes:

These form the core of the language, and change only very slowly. So we don’t add new conjunctions, we stick with the ones we have (and, or, but, etc.). We do create portmanteau words like Juneteenth–which looks like an Ordinal Number, but it really isn’t: it’s the celebration of June 19, 1865, the Abolition of Slavery in the State of Texas after the Civil War, now celebrated in many areas. A portmanteau–pronounced as in French, approximately port-man-toe–word is one made up of two or more words or morphemes.

Whew! (An onomatopoeic Interjection) So that’s why when we learn the Parts of Speech in Grammar School, we aren’t really getting the full scoop. I can understand why, I’m not sure a first grader needs to understand Open and Closed Word Groups, etc. Unlike in Math, however, where we first learn Euclidian geometry, and then later learn that it can be transcended, or in Science where for all intents and purposes we learn classical Physics, and then graduate to Relativity and Quantum Physics, we don’t progress in the understanding of how our own language works or other languages work, for real. And that makes learning other languages harder.

More to come!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s