What are nouns

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second episode of our Grammay special. In this special, we go over the common grammar terms and look at what they actually stand for, where that comes from and we’ll also ask ourselves the question if we really need the stuff the particular term stands for. Like… do we really need grammatical gender, for instance? I’m sure most of you are thinking the same thing. And you might be right. But we won’t find out today, because before we look at gender, we’ll look at the thing that actually has the gender. So today, we’ll take a quick look at

the noun

The term noun comes from the Latin word nomen,  and I’m sure many of you can guess which other word comes from that root … it is the word name.
In Latin, nomen meant both things, name and noun, and we can actually find noun in the more general sense of “naming things” in a few English verbs like to announce or to pronounce. And even though the term noun itself slowly shifted toward being a fancy grammar term, it didn’t change in its essence, because all that nouns are is basically just names  people gave to objects and concepts within their reality.

“Yo fellow cavemen, what are are you drinking?”
“Don’t know… but everyone asks that, so I’ll call it what are.”
“Ahhhhh… nice. I’ll have some what are, too. “

And so the noun water was born.

Nah, I am kidding of course, but there’s a bit of truth to that insofar as that nouns usually are not completely random names. So there’s a reason why people chose it. The noun beer for instance is most likely related to beverage and comes from the Latin verb for to drink.
But yeah, nouns basically represent the various “things” in our reality. So they’re essentially the counterpart to verbs in our language universe.
If you’ve read the article on verbs, you’ll probably remember that analogy – the universe is made up of energy and mass and we can find this duality reflected in languages. The verbs are names for action or energy. And the nouns, together with actual real names for people, are the names for mass.

Now, generally it is a good thing in life to at least sometimes ask yourself if your way of perceiving reality, your way of looking at the world is the only way (spoiler: it’s not). Not through a lens of what’s right or wrong or which way is better, but simply in a sense of what options there are. And this is especially helpful when learning a language, and that’s why, even though nouns seem to be such a basic building block of language, I think it’s worth asking ourselves the question… do we need them.

Do we need nouns?

And I think that nouns might actually be the one aspect of language that is the hardest to get rid of.
In the article on verbs (link below), I mentioned that there are languages where making a distinction between what’s a noun and what’s a verb is impossible. And we’ve seen examples of how the line is blurry also in English.

  • Cold beer is a must have.

Here, we’ve used verbs to fill the role of an entity.
So, for most languages it is practical to have a dictionary category called “noun”, but technically we wouldn’t need that.
The real question is if we need the “functionality” of nouns. Like… can we communicate about our reality without naming any of the stuff in it.
That would mean that we’d have to refer to any thing or being based on how it is and what it does.
And while that might be possible in theory, just like we can refer to all mass by the energy stored in it, I think in practice, it is really really really difficult.
Like… it’s so difficult that I find it actually hard to come up with an example.

  • I am drinking what’s cold, golden, sparkling brewed.

I’m sure some of you understood that but it is BY FAR not as clear as the same situation expressed in a languages without verbs.

  • I a cold beer to the stomach.

I can even strip all the clutter, and it still kind of works…

  • I beer stomach.

The thing is, our perception of reality is heavily biased toward “mass”, toward objects. Like… look around you. If you had to write down all you see you’d notice loads of names for things (nouns)  and very few names for actions (verbs).
Take a stone in the desert.
From the perspective of the universe, that’s not really a thing. It is just a dust cloud that expands and disappears, so looks more like  “energy”. But for us, many things around us are somewhat static, including our bodies, and when we want to talk about reality, we refer to all these “goal posts” first. We use them to build a scene and in this then some “verb” takes center stage.
That’s why skipping the verb works in many sentences. The objects we’re naming give enough context to guess what’s going on. But the reverse is REALLY hard. We’d have to perceive the world in terms of energy, and we’re not really built for that.
So bottom line… while in theory it may be possible to only talk in terms of states and processes, in practice we’re kind of hardwired to have them, because that’s how we perceive the world.

And you know what’s funny… ironically, it makes a lot of sense to NOT focus on learning nouns, especially in the beginning. Why not? Well, first of all, there’s just a crazy amount of nouns. Think about a kitchen for a second. If you had to write down kitchen nouns, you’d come up with a long list of items, but if you have to write down kitchen verbs, chances are you won’t get more than a dozen without some serious pondering (unless you’re into cooking of course).
So, there are way too many nouns to chose from, and also, you can point at a lot of them.
Why would you spend your time in A1 learning the German names for body parts if you can spend that time learning abstract verbs and words that help you coordinate stuff in your sentences. That’s the second reason, why you shouldn’t focus on nouns, and the third one is that many of the more abstract nouns that you cannot point at are …. based on verbs.
Just think of all these words with -ung, -keit, -heit and so on. If you spend your time learning verbs, you get at least as many nouns fo’ free.

Well, at least in terms of meaning. Because in many languages, nouns come with a certain characteristic that makes them a little annoying. And German is one of them.

Nouns in German

The German terms for noun are either das Nomen, which is based on Latin,  or das Substantiv. That one of course also comes from Latin and it’s based on the phrase verbum substantivum, which once meant “word for substance” – nice tie in with the mass-metaphor.
Me personally, I like Substantiv much better and I actually find das Nomen to be a little smug and elitist. And I get immediately bored when I hear it. Can’t tell you why, though, it’s just a feeling :).
In terms of functions, German nouns have two special characteristics. The first one is of course their gender.
In German, nouns get to pick between three genders and while most have just one, German also has vivid transgender noun community. So some nouns have two genders, each of which with a different meaning – like der Schild (defensive shield) and das Schild (information sign).
And some nouns have different genders depending on the region that you’re in – like die Cola in Berlin and das Cola in Bavaria (which is wrong of course, but they don’t know any better). Also, some nouns change their gender over time. I don’t have an example right now, but there are nouns that used to be strict der two hundred years ago, that are noun das.
And last but not least, let’s point out that the grammatical gender has very little to do with the noun. So something might be masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. And to make it REALLY confusing, there are nouns like das Mädchen, which is a neuter, but which stands for a girl.

Now, German isn’t the only language with gender and it’s not the only one that has three of them.
But there is one thing that makes German nouns REALLY unique worldwide… and that is the fact that they’re ALL capitalized.
That’s right, not just the names. ALL of them.
So an english Sentence with german Spellingrules would look like the Sentence you are reading right this Moment.
Ewww… that’s… actually quite weird when I see it in English :).
Capitalizing nouns was kind of a trend that slowly caught on not only in German, but also in Danish for instance. And while most countries reformed it away sooner or later, the Germans LOVE their uppercase nouns and decided to keep it.
And I have to say… I really like it, because it structures the sentence and makes it much easier to parse. Like, you can see right away which word are objects and you can ignore them and look for the verbs first because those are more important.
As with anything that requires effort, there’s a trend to not capitalize nouns in chat and colloquial emails. Heck, there’s even a portion of designers that think it is “cool” and modern to write everything in lower case. 
But at least to me, a german Sentence without uppercase Nouns looks about as shitty as an english Sentence with capitalized Nouns. So I’d recommend you put in the effort.
And don’t you “Okay boomer.” me now :). I’m a millennial, and age has nothing to do with that. I was pro uppercase already in kindergarden. Up-cay or out of the way, as we used to say… oh man… so cringe.

Anyway, I think that’s about enough for today.
This was our (not so) quick look at what nouns are. I know this wasn’t really news to anyone, but I hope you got a few nice takeaways from it and had a good time. I definitely did writing it :).
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
Have a great week and I’ll see you soon with the look at … genduh!
Bye.

further reading:

What is a verb

 

 

4.8 25 votes
Article Rating

Newsletter for free?!

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Your Thoughts and Questions

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
33 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Starbuck
Starbuck
1 year ago

So everybody says that a Schildkröte is a “shield-toad” but how do we know it’s not a toad with an information sign

Lxcxx
Lxcxx
1 year ago

Super good article as always :) and thank you so much for the membership, I’ll try to put it to work as best as I can !

Julian Roach
Julian Roach
1 year ago

Bad boy Emmanuel. You put the nouns up in the picture without their articles to let us know gender. There is NO POINT learning nouns WITHOUT their gender. Bad boy.

Julian Roach
Julian Roach
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

A clever excuse, Emmanuel. Aber eine kleine Flunkerei… If you were right, how would I sing Schubert? (Meine Laute hab ich gehängt an die Wand…)

Elizabet*
Elizabet*
1 year ago

I like the physics analogy! Very timely since I am taking physics at college right now.

I think you might have skipped a word in the section “ironically, it makes a lot of sense to focus on learning nouns”… Did you mean “not focus”? (I’m doubting myself since Elsa didn’t catch it!) In my experience it has worked quite well to focus on verbs first rather than nouns. Also, learning the alphabet (the names of the letters, not the pronunciation) is way overrated!

Do you suppose a language could work without negation, theoretically? Or are there any that already do?

Viv
Viv
1 year ago

I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all members who made it possible for me to learn German by sponsoring my membership
Thanking you for your kind gesture
Viv

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

I understand Danish dropped capitalization of nouns a few years ago. This would not surprise me at all, since they would not let Germany keep northern Schleswig…..(OK, non sequitar!)

Chuck
Chuck
1 year ago

I was pro uppercase already in kindergarden. Up-cay or out of the way, as we used to say…
That made me laugh out loud. Thank you.
p.s. English for Kindergarten is kindergarten.

DEmberton
DEmberton
1 year ago

I article brain. You thanks.

What I never understand about genders is how it works with pronouns when it’s not clear what noun is being referred to. E.g. is it wrong to say “Sie ist ein tolles Mädchen”? Should that be “Es ist ein tolles Mädchen”? Probably yes, but this is someone you’d normally refer to as a she because she is also eine Tochter/Schwester/Schulerin etc..

She could also be ein Mensch:

Deine Tochter, die (oder das?) ein tolles Mädchen ist, ist ein Mensch, der/die/das weiß, wer sie/es/er ist.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  DEmberton

I think it just sounds clearer to a German. “Sie ist ein tolles Mädchen” is exactly right, as would be “Er ist eine gute Person.” Gender doesn’t have to line up between subject and predicate, since the point of the sentence is to say something about the subject (in this case, equating it with something).

To take the personal weirdness out of it: “Dieses Werkzeug ist der Hammer.” (see what I did there??) This equals that; they don’t have to match up in gender, because the equation is what you’re being told about.

So:

  • Deine Tochter, die ein tolles Mädchen ist, ist ein Mensch, der weiß, wer er ist.

It’s a bit of a weird formulation, but grammatically pretty clear. The relative pronouns need to match in gender to link them to what they describe – if you don’t do that, you end up with real confusion (wait, what’s a great girl? who knows who what is?).

Birtt
Birtt
1 year ago

Ermazzinngg! Danke, Emanuel! Your posts never cease to balance unique & interesting tidbits with a touch of hilarity.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Have you heard of Nicaraguan Sign Language? Where a bunch of deaf kids basically invented a language all on their own starting in the late 1970’s.

It has nouns and pronouns and they get marked for the subject, object, and topic. No prepositions, because the verbs show location and direction. There are words for “the” and “that”, but it isn’t clear if there are indefinite articles, from what I read. The vocabulary and grammar apparently started out simple and are getting more complex over time.

Just thought it was an interesting way to think about, what do we really need to talk about the world around us.

Junie Curtiss
Junie Curtiss
1 year ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

Ich war in einem Café in Grenada Nicaragua wohin alle Mitarbeiter deaf war, und nur diese Sprache sprechen. Es gibt eine Karte mit all das was man sagen können will. Just point! Sie waren sehr nett. Cool Erinnerung!

Aryan
Aryan
1 year ago

Thank you very much for the membership I got for free

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago

Hallo lieber Emanuel
Ich habe just deinen Artikel gelesen . Es ist immer eine immense Freude dir zu lesen, diesmal eine Lektüre voll von Philosophie der Deutschen Sprache . Das is nicht ein Spoiler ! Du liebst die Sprache und deine Leindenschaft is beeindruckend .
Bis bald

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hello,

I’m the first typoerer to have seen your article today!
“And we’ve seen example how the line is blurry also in English” (And we’ve seen examples of how the line is blurry also in English)
“you’d note loads of names” (you’d notice loads of names)
“we refer to all these st”goal posts” (the st is surplus)
“Substantiv is Can’t tell you why” (substantive is… ???)
“So an englisch Sentence with german Spellingrules” (So an english Sentence – and of course you know English and German are capitalised in English, but that’s part of your example of how things differ)
“a german Sentence without upper Case Nouns looks about as shitty an English Sentence” (a german Sentence without uppercase Nouns looks about as shitty as an english Sentence – uppercase is just one word and is an adjective so it wouln’t be capitalised in German – I corrected the word “English” to germanise the sentence)
“can see right away what word are objects” (can see right away which words are objects)

By the way, your example about decluttering sentences:

“I beer stomach” reminded me of the way stomach can be used in English as a verb, e.g.
“I can’t stomach beer” (of course I can!)

Bis bald!

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago

Capitalizing nouns in English is an interesting thing – like, I don’t perceive it as looking bad or wrong, necessarily, just maybe old-timey (it used to be quite common) or quirky.

That brings to mind a book recommendation: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It’s written in the form of journal entries by the main character, who also capitalizes lots of his nouns. Really, really good (not just because of the capitalized Nouns).

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

No, it’d be a bit of a spoiler to talk about where it’s (mostly) set :D

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

Ooh, neat, looks like I got a new book to read!

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

Haha it’s awesome, kept me up way too late a couple nights. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is fantastic too, if you haven’t read/heard of it.