Sunday, 10 October 2010
What was the first syntactic category?
Upon pondering what exactly a 'syntactic category' means, and what makes a noun a noun and a verb a verb etc, I came to the conclusion that it is only in relation to another word that you can say what syntactic category a word has. We remember in school learning how a noun is a 'person, place or thing', while a verb is 'an action', but this is a simplification- relying on the semantics of a word is very unreliable in determining the category of a word in a sentence.
For example, the word 'hammer' is only a noun if it is used as a noun in a sentence: ex. "I have a hammer." In isolation, it does not have a syntactic category- in English, it could quite possibly be a verb as well: ex. "Hammer the nail into the wall." There are other languages, such as those in the Wakashan family, where most word roots can act as a noun, verb, or adjective in a sentence- fore example, 'wolf' can be a noun just as easily as a verb or ajective (I heard this discussed by Maggie Tallerman at the last Evolang conference in Utrecht, but I haven't seen it published).
My conclusion from this is that the first syntactic category must have arisen in contrast to another; and therefore, a minimum of two would have had to arise at the same time in order for there to have been any distinction between words and their roles in an utterance.
The only discussion of this idea I've seen occurs in Heine and Kuteva, A Genesis of Grammar (2007), where they cite Tallerman as well as Jim Hurford (as personal communication).
I've been trying to put my thoughts down about this into a coherent sort of paper, but it lies untouched in my folder not getting much attention. I need a nudge!