Verb today, noun tomorrow: the grammar of identity
Are you an adjective, or a noun? Maybe a verb? Are you, god forbid, a preposition? It sounds like one of those supremely rubbish (and usually spammy) Facebook apps – “What Word Class Are You?” It would be appalling, and probably misspelled. However.
The vagaries of Facebook aside, word class – a banal and utilitarian property though it is – can say a lot about the person using the words; sometimes, more than they intended. It’s constantly amazing how much we say not just in our choice of vocabulary, but in our choice of grammar.
It’s easier to pin down the effect of vocabulary choices, because it’s most often a question of different sources using different words for the same concept, and so you can compare them directly. If one newspaper describes Roman Polanski as ‘the well-known auteur’ and another as ‘the well-known child rapist’ it’s pretty damn clear who’s on which side. Grammar is harder. When the same word has multiple forms – noun and verb, or noun and adjective, usually – what difference does the chosen form make, when according to the dictionary they’re versions of the same thing?
The inspiration for this post was this piece about an interview Stephen Fry gave to a 14-year-old contest winner. In it, he says that he will be presenting an upcoming BBC series on language called Planet Word, which is excellent news enough (Stephen Fry + language geekery = be still my pounding heart), but the part I found most intriguing was when he talked about how our concepts of language map onto how we think about people, and the limitations such mappings can impose:
He warned [the kid interviewing] that language could shape and limit people’s ambitions: “We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
And on some sociolinguistics or psycholinguistics exam paper of the near future, this quotation will be reprinted followed by the word that haunts essay-subject students’ dreams even now – “Discuss.”
What is the qualitative difference between Fry saying “I am a writer” and “I write”? They amount to the same thing, surely? Well, no, not quite. Firstly, as he points out, verbs are dynamic, whilst nouns are static. “I write” draws attention to the fact of writing as an ongoing endeavour, a process that may be happening even now, in a way that “I am a writer” doesn’t. Today, I write; tomorrow, I act; the day after, who knows?
Secondly, there is an egotism about nouns of profession. In their usual use, they denote professionalism: the difference between “I am a footballer” and “I play football”, or “I am a painter” and “I paint” is almost always the difference between someone who does it for a living and someone who messes around on weekends. Appropriating the professional form when you aren’t a professional smells of egotism, and people recognise this, however unconsciously – I suspect everybody has known at least one pretentious wannabe who compounded the pretentiousness by insisting on “I am a songwriter” when really, they just wrote songs.
Fry is a professional, of course. He has been paid, no doubt handsomely, to write and act and present, and is therefore well within his rights to say “I am a writer, I am an actor, I am a TV presenter”. But he is rarely egotistic about the fact of being a star in the way that some stars are; perhaps this is a carefully cultivated aspect of his public persona as avuncular national treasure, or perhaps he is genuinely humbled by his fame. Either way, his insistence on the verbal form rejects the idea that he is some sort of Superior Being – an Actor, a Writer – and places him instead on a level with people who write for the student newspaper or turn out for the am-dram society.
Sincere or not, it’s a masterful manipulation of audience. When Stephen Fry says “I write” it gives me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling inside, because hey, I write too! And I suspect that almost all of Stephen Fry’s usual audience do, as well, because clandestine artistry of some sort is a class feature of the over-educated, left-wing, middle-class demographic to which Fry pitches himself. By emphasising that the verb is the superior form, Fry has endeared himself to his writing, acting, trivia-knowing audience who do the verb, but are not, and probably never will be, the noun.
The potential egotism of nouns is a direct function of their grammatical purpose, though, and is not necessarily a bad thing. As we probably all learnt in primary school, A Noun Is A Thing. Nouns are. A noun is a declaration of an identity.
Applied to professions, then, they can be misused or misinterpreted – your profession is not an ineluctable identity, despite popular usage. (Think of how anyone who has famously changed career will still be described as ‘ex-model X’ or ‘former politician Y’ long after the fact.)
Nouns would make sense, might indeed be a good thing, if they were to be confined to things that we are happy to claim as full identities. And in some areas, the use of nouns tends to bear this out: for example, part of the continuing effort to get people to understand butch and femme as distinct gender identities – something you are – has been the emphasis on the fact that both words can be nouns as well as, or instead of, adjectives. (See also the rise of capitalised identities as a way to harness the magical power of the noun.)
So. Using a word as a noun rather than an adjective can offer a kind of linguistic empowerment, a claiming of identity. Historically, though, noun-identities have been fraught. The idea that Fry raises, of being ‘imprisoned’ by nouns, doesn’t just apply to professions: the identity-bestowing powers of the noun can be taken too far, ending in essentialisation and, ultimately, dehumanisation. Consider the difference in tone and connotation – and historical usage – between ‘black people’ and ‘blacks’, ‘gay people’ and ‘gays’, between ‘disabled people’ and ‘the disabled’. Or there’s an unusual manifestation of the essentialising noun in some trans activist circles, where it’s smooshing an adjective into a noun, creating a new and distinct noun, that causes the problem: the lack of a space in such terms as ‘transwoman’ implies that ‘transwoman’ is a distinct entity from ‘woman’, perpetuating the idea that trans people’s sexes/genders are somehow inherently unlike, and distinguishable from, those of cis people.* To quote s.e. smith, “A trans woman is a woman. A transwoman is…something else.”
The noun form (the form that handily reduces whatever group to one shared, and usually irrelevant, characteristic, and also usually leaves out the verbal reminder that whoever are being mentioned are people) is almost always the one preferred by people out to insult, degrade, patronise or threaten the group in question. A case in point, and a spectacular one even by racist standards, is the recent ‘satirical’ letter composed by a (white) member of the US Tea Party fringe that squeezes the word ‘coloreds’ in nine times in a few paragraphs.
Nouns (and their cousins, pronouns) are specific, rigid, definitive; and this is what makes them perfect in some situations and really bad in others. It comes down to what you want to emphasise at any given time, and whether the trait in question is relevant to the situation or not. Somebody denying that one of your identities is real at all? Use the noun; assert its existence. Someone trying to reduce you to a single stereotyped trait? Use the adjective – remind them whatever trait describes you, rather than contains you.
Verbs perform, adjectives describe, nouns are. People, in their inconvenience, tend to do all three – we can be a noun in one context and an adjective or a verb in another, or even ricochet back and forth between forms depending on which bits of our identities we want to prioritise at that moment.
The minutiae of grammar are not always interesting in themselves, and it’s hard to teach them in interesting ways. I concede that. But I’ve seen too many people squirm and doze and stare out the window in our compulsory first-year English Language module, when we were taught the nuts and bolts of grammar and syntax, because they couldn’t see what such technical stuff had to do with the high and mighty Literature that they’d come to study.
And that’s a shame, because what we understand from a sentence is shaped as much by how the words are used as by what words they are.
*From a linguistic point of view, I do wonder how such terms as ‘transwoman’ came into existence, considering that the adjective+noun smoosh isn’t a way we usually form new nouns in English – you’d never see ‘whitewoman’ or ‘gaywoman’, for example.** If I had to guess, I’d say that trans- seems to attach more naturally to words than other adjectives because it’s used legitimately as a prefix elsewhere, and perhaps that’s why.
**Although you do get the kind of new nouns – usually in fantasy fiction of dubious quality – like ‘she-wolf’ and ‘she-orc’ and so on, where an analogous dynamic is in place, implying that she-Things are distinctly different from, and probably not like normal, Things.