Dear noun, how do I explain you?


By Nadine Fouché-Karsten

It is impossible to talk to each other without referring to people, inanimate objects, animals or places, to name just a few. The words we use to name these matters are nouns (or proper nouns as they are known at school level). In the picture below, I use a whole series of nouns to name things, the entities in the picture. For example, I use the noun “cloud” to name the white mass in the sky, which forms small drops of water (rain).

How can the term “noun” be explained?

Any main word type is based on a set of semantic (meaning) criteria. In other words, each headword type’s definition is meaning-based. We also observe this in school textbooks when definitions like the following are given: “A noun can be the name of an animal, place or thing.”

However, the linguist, Bas Aarts, criticizes the inclusion of the word “thing” (thing) in such a definition. In this connection he says the following: “A table is a thing, but what about friendship, happiness, idea, intention, love, thought, and yesterday? These words denote concepts, mental constructs, time spans, and the like.” He continues and says that to indicate a word is a noun, because it names a thing, one must already know what is meant by “thing”. The parameters or boundaries of “thing” must therefore be established in advance, which is not necessarily the case at present.

For school level We therefore offer the following definition (which can of course be shortened, depending on the grade level of the learners):

A noun (aka “noun”) name or Identify something. This something can be people, imaginary persons, animals and plants, inanimate things and places, masses, collections or abstract entities (such as diseases, sports, ideas, feelings or actions that are represented statically).

How can the semantic definition of “noun” be expanded?

Not all linguists agree that nouns should be equated with naming. Some linguists argue that it is impossible to include all the different categories of cases, which can be named by nouns, in its definition (Gardenförs 2014:186). To solve this problem, we propose that we replace the above definition with structural properties be expanded, as suggested by Bas Aarts in the book Oxford Modern English Grammar (Arch 2011). These characteristics are as follows:

  • When a sentence is divided into parts that belong together and a noun occurs in one of the parts of the sentence, the noun is the most important word of the specific part of the sentence. For example, the sentence “The boy kicks the ball” can be split into “(The son) (kick) (the ball)”, where the words “son” and “ball”, which have a naming function and are therefore nouns, are the most important part of speech in “the son” and “the ball” respectively.
  • The clauses in which nouns appear can only consist of a noun, for example “(Boys) (play) (soccer)”. Alternatively, the clause can consist of a noun along with other parts of speechsuch as articles (“a”, “the”, “g'”), count words (e.g. “three”, “many”, “first”, “quarter”) or adjectives (e.g. “flux”, ” smart”, “blue”).
  • Clauses of which a noun is the most important part of speech are often used to show us who/what performs or undergoes an action (that is, the subject of the sentence), or who/what is directly affected by an action ( that is, the direct object of the sentence).
  • The part of the sentence in which a noun occurs can also be replaced by a pronoun (eg “it”, “them”).

What characteristics should not be included in the definition of “noun”?

As can be deduced from the third bullet point, this does not mean that all nouns are used together with articles. The characteristics that are often given in school textbooks – I am not referring to a specific textbook – that nouns take the diminutive form and plural form and even indicate gender, are also not included, because these are all characteristics that are actually for a very specific type of noun. money; not for nouns in their entirety.

Take the proper noun “kudu” as an example.

  • “To (a kudu) to hunt, is every hunter’s biggest dream.” (VivA-KPO, adapted)
    • Here it is used with the indefinite article.
  • “Our biggest frustration is (the kudu) that comes to eat your two-meter-diameter deer fern, because it is dry and arid and there is no other food for him.” (VivA-KPO, adapted)
    • Here it is used with the definite article.
  • “Unfortunately there are no photos of the kudu·swhich the men would hunt (for there were (no kudu) did not happen).” (VivA-KPO)
    • Here it takes the plural form.
  • “Koos honked again and dimmed the van’s headlights, but the little kududon’t move.” (VivA-KPO, adapted)
    • Here it takes the diminutive form.
  • “The kudu bullposed nicely at the Okapuka Ranch outside Windhoek.” (VivA-KPO, adapted)
    • Here it indicates gender.

The problem with such tests is that not all nouns meet all the tests. Take the proper noun as an example. Although proper nouns readily take the diminutive form (for example “Hendrikkie gets sick from dog food he gets” (VivA-KPO)), proper nouns do not get the plural form, since they name a unique thing, of which there is only one. So we will write “Then there are the other official Argus selection drives across South Africa for which cyclists can safely plan” (VivA-KPO), but not *”Then there are the other official Argus selection rides across South Africa·s for which cyclists can safely plan”. Nouns also do not connect prototypically with articles, for example “Now comes the turn of (Henri), the farmer’s son” (VivA-KPO) as opposed to *”Now comes the turn of (the Henri), the farmer’s son”.

If you are wondering how the noun can be introduced as an abstract concept in the classroom to 4th graders, the tool “Working with words: Nouns (nouns)” in Classroom Tools can be used. Although it is not specifically indicated, this tool provides for proper nouns (aka proper nouns at school level) and proper nouns (aka proper nouns at school level), as these two types of nouns are included in the grade 4 textbooks at my disposal. I have consistently tried to make nouns relevant to the real lives of learners, by indicating where we use this part of speech outside the classroom.

VivA greetings
Nadine Fouché-Karsten

  • Viva’s blog is proudly sponsored by the AONtwerk.
  • Nadine Fouché-Karsten is attached to the Virtual Institute for Afrikaans (VivA) as an education expert.

Source list

Aarts, B. 2011. Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fouché, N., Kapp, S. & Erasmus, C. 2021. Parts of speech: Nouns. Date of access: 9 October 2023.

Gardenförs, P. 2014. A semantic theory of word classes. Croatian Journal of PhilosophyXIV(41): 179-194.