Word! The Language Column

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

What is the special perfidy of nouns? They can deceive us by showing us a state of reality that is perhaps quite different. And in doing so, they can even cause great harm.

By Sharon Dodua Otoo

There are many, many nouns for the act of looking - a glance, a glimpse, a peep - but there's no noun for the act of listening. In general, we don't think primarily about sound. So I have a different perspective on the world; I can construct soundscapes that have an effect on people, but they don't know why. It's a sort of subterfuge.
(Walter Murch)

My dislike of nouns is about as intense as my love of verbs. This should be unsurprising. Whereas verbs allow for movement, process and change, nouns feign a state of reality which does not exist, or is at least often contested. For example, if I say “cup”, I might be thinking of a medium-sized ceramic one with a simple handle, whereas you might envision a chipped glass one with no handle and another person might have a plastic trainer cup with two handles in mind.

While he was not specifically referring to nouns, Friedrich Nietzsche originally formulated this exact same thought in his 1873 essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense. He writes: “We are talking about a “snake”: the designation applies to nothing but the writhing, so it could also refer to the worm. What arbitrary classifications, what one-sided preferences for one or the other property of a thing!” I think he has a point!

In the same essay, Nietzsche asserts “what matters with words is never the truth”. I’m not sure I would go so far. It’s like saying: “This sentence is a lie.” If it were true, it would not be true. Words need to have a base level of truth to them, in order that we can communicate with each other. However, I do agree that language is more ambiguous than we often think it is. And nouns have a very large role to play in that. According to Nietzsche: “We think we know something of the things themselves when we speak of trees, colours, snow and flowers, and yet we possess nothing but metaphors of things that do not correspond at all to the original entities.”

Nouns can distort our understanding

Not only do nouns not correspond to the original entities, they can really distort our understanding. How the absence of nouns can be used to manipulate our perception is illustrated by the opening quote. I imagined how specific nouns to describe listening might affect the way I overhear gossip, the way I try not to hear a neighbour’s lovemaking, or sing along to a favourite song.  However, the presence of nouns can be even more damaging. Let’s look, for example, at the German word “Häuptling” (chief). According to Professor Dr. Susan Arndt, “Häuptling” was one of many words which was coined in the colonial context, with the explicit aim of devaluing African political leaders. Moreover it has a masculine connotation, so it also contributed to the erasure of female leaders. The noun “Häuptling” is never used to describe western heads of state. Indeed, “Häuptling” gives the impression that there is an inherent difference between African leaders and European leaders. This is deliberate. Would it have been as easy to justify the subjugation of African leaders if they had also been known as kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, prime ministers and presidents? Of course not.


Indeed, it was not sufficient to degrade African societies. The ultimate aim was dehumanisation. In his 1961 book Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth) Frantz Fanon explains: “When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary.“ Words like “bastard” and “mulatto” specifically have been derived from terms normally used to describe the animal kingdom and applied to describe the children of Black people and white people.

Even when we speak of a person and their achievements - even when used positively - nouns can be misleading.  I am, for example, a huge fan of Bertolt Brecht. But when I speak of his body of work, I am aware that to focus only on him would be hugely diminishing to those individuals, particularly unnamed women, with whom he worked (or “heavily borrowed” from).

I therefore make a plea for nouns to be conceived of only as an approximation, or a summary. Placeholders, perhaps, that hint at the existence of things as they are assumed to be, or perhaps as they could be, or even as they should be - rather than what they really are.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.