The First Word Was Not a Noun

Cory Marie Stade


Language origins research supports a gradual evolution of human language in our species over a long period of time, rather than an abrupt acquisition in one.  An important line of enquiry, then, is to explore in what steps language likely developed, such as in the emergence of syntactic structure.  In the literature, it has been suggested that certain syntactic categories were the first to emerge, mainly nouns ([Smith 1767] Land 1977, Li and Hombert 2002, Luuk 2009).  However, theories positing a first grammatical category are problematic; in isolation, an utterance cannot be attributed a syntactic category such as noun or verb unless one uses a semantic definition of what a syntactic category is.  A semantic definition of syntactic category is awkward because of language variation, and therefore in modern linguistics it is common practise to attribute a syntactic category based on morphological and distributional properties (Evans and Green 2006, Gil 2000).  An isolated word without any morphology or distribution is category-less.  Luuk’s (2009) paper argues that nouns were the first category to emerge, and he offers eleven reasons why this must be so.  While Luuk’s paper argues successfully why verbs are unlikely to have emerged before nouns, he has not considered that these categories could have emerged together.  It is argued here that the first utterances would have been category-less, and it was only in relation to another utterance that syntactic categories could truly exist; hence, two or more categories must have emerged at the same time.  This hypothesis is supported by grammaticalization theory, which describes nouns and verbs as being the most primitive categories as they are the least grammaticalized and cannot be derived historically from other syntactic categories (Heine and Kuteva 2007).


language evolution; syntax; grammaticalization

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Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle

EISSN: 1920-440X
ISSN: 1200-3344

University of Victoria