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The noun as a part of speech has the categorial meaning of 'substance' or 'thingness'. It follows from this that the noun is the main nominative part of speech, effecting nomination of the fullest value within the framework of the notional division of the lexicon.
The noun has the power, by way of nomination, to isolate different properties of substances (i.e. direct and oblique qualities, and also actions and states as processual characteristics of substantive phenomena) and present them as corresponding self-dependent substances. E.g.:
Her words were unexpectedly bitter.— We were struck by the unexpected bitterness of her words. At that time he was down in his career, but we knew well that very soon he would be up again.— His career had its ups and downs. The cable arrived when John was preoccupied with the arrangements for the party.— The arrival of the cable interrupted his preoccupation with the arrangements for the party.
This natural and practically unlimited substantivisation
force establishes the noun as the central nominative lexemic unit of language.
The categorial functional properties of the noun are determined by its semantic properties.
The most characteristic substantive function of the noun is that of the subject in the sentence, since the referent of the subject is the person or thing immediately named. The function of the object in the sentence is also typical of the noun as the substance word. Other syntactic functions, i.e. attributive, adverbial, and even predicative, although performed by the noun with equal ease, are not immediately characteristic of its substantive quality as such. It should be noted that, while performing these non-substantive functions, the noun essentially differs from the other parts of speech used in similar sentence positions. This may be clearly shown by transformations shifting the noun from various non-subject syntactic positions into subject syntactic positions of the same general semantic value, which is impossible with other parts of speech. E.g.:
Mary is a flower-girl.→ The flower-girl (you are speaking of) is Mary. He lives in Glasgow.→ Glasgow is his place of residence. This happened three years ago.→ Three years have elapsed since it happened.
Apart from the cited sentence-part functions, the noun is characterised by some special types of combinability.
In particular, typical of the noun is the prepositional combinability with another noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb. E.g.: an entrance to the house; to turn round the corner; red in the face; far from its destination.
The casal (possessive) combinability characterises the noun alongside of its prepositional combinability with another noun. E.g.: the speech of the President — the President's speech; the cover of the book — the book's cover.
English nouns can also easily combine with one another by sheer contact, unmediated by any special lexemic or morphemic means. In the contact group the noun in preposition plays the role of a semantic qualifier to the noun in post-position. E.g.: a cannon ball; a log cabin; a sports event; film festivals.
The lexico-grammatical status of such combinations has presented a big problem for many scholars, who were uncertain as to the linguistic heading under which to treat them:
either as one separate word, or a word-group.* In the history of linguistics the controversy about the lexico-grammatical status of the constructions in question has received the half-facetious name 'The cannon ball problem'.
Taking into account the results of the comprehensive analysis undertaken in this field by Soviet linguists, we may define the combination as a specific word-group with intermediary features. Crucial for this decision is the isolability test (separation shift of the qualifying noun) which is performed for the contact noun combinations by an easy, productive type of transformation. Cf.: a cannon ball→ a ball for cannon; the court regulation→ the regulation of the court; progress report → report about progress; the funds distribution → the distribution of the funds.
The corresponding compound nouns (formed from substantive stems), as a rule, cannot undergo the isolability test with an equal ease. The transformations with the nounal compounds are in fact reduced to sheer explanations of their etymological motivation. The comparatively closer connection between the stems in compound nouns is reflected by the spelling (contact or hyphenated presentation). E.g.: fireplace→ place where fire is made; starlight → light coming from stars; story-teller → teller (writer, composer) of stories; theatre-goer → a person who goes to (frequents) theatres.
Contact noun attributes forming a string of several words are very characteristic of professional language. E.g.:
A number of Space Shuttle trajectory optimisation problems were simulated in the development of the algorithm, including three ascent problems and a re-entry problem (From a scientific paper on spacecraft). The accuracy of offshore tanker unloading operations is becoming more important as the cost of petroleum products increases (From a scientific paper on control systems).
§ 3. As a part of speech, the noun is also characterised by a set of formal features determining its specific status in the lexical paradigm of nomination. It has its word-building distinctions, including typical suffixes, compound stem models, conversion patterns. It discriminates the grammatical categories of gender, number, case, article determination, which will be analysed below.
The cited formal features taken together are relevant for the division of nouns into several subclasses, which are identified by means of explicit classificational criteria. The most general and rigorously delimited subclasses of nouns are grouped into four oppositional pairs.
The first nounal subclass opposition differentiates proper and common nouns. The foundation of this division is 'type of nomination'. The second subclass opposition differentiates animate and inanimate nouns on the basis of 'form of existence'. The third subclass opposition differentiates human and non-human nouns on the basis of 'personal quality'. The fourth subclass opposition differentiates countable and uncountable nouns on the basis of 'quantitative structure'.
Somewhat less explicitly and rigorously realised is the division of English nouns into concrete and abstract.
The order in which the subclasses are presented is chosen by convention, not by categorially relevant features: each subclass correlation is reflected on the whole of the noun system; this means that the given set of eight subclasses cannot be structured hierarchically in any linguistically consistent sense (some sort of hierarchical relations can be observed only between animate — inanimate and human — non-human groupings). Consider the following examples: There were three Marys in our company. The cattle have been driven out into the pastures.
The noun Mary used in the first of the above sentences is at one and the same time 'proper' (first subclass division), 'animate' (second subclass division), 'human' (third subclass division), 'countable' (fourth subclass division). The noun cattle used in the second sentence is at one and the same time 'common' (first subclass division), 'animate' (second subclass division), 'non-human' (third subclass division), 'uncountable' (fourth subclass division).
The subclass differentiation of nouns constitutes a foundation for their selectional syntagmatic combinability both among themselves and with other parts of speech. In the selectional aspect of combinability, the subclass features form the corresponding selectional bases.
In particular, the inanimate selectional base of combinability can be pointed out between the noun subject and the verb predicate in the following sentence: The sandstone was crumbling. (Not: *The horse was crumbling.)
The animate selectional base is revealed between the noun
subject and the verb in the following sentence: The poor creature was laming. (Not: *The tree was laming.)
The human selectional base underlies the connection between the nouns in the following combination: John's love of music (not: *the cat's love of music).
The phenomenon of subclass selection is intensely analysed as part of current linguistic research work.
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