Forget Nouns—Verbs Are Where the Action Is

From a New York Times column by John McWhorter headlined “Forget Nouns. Verbs Are Where the Action Is.”:

As a linguist, I’ve lost count of how many times I have been asked what I think of the various language-learning apps. The truth is that I don’t use them. But of late I have been watching my daughter, 11, use the platform Duolingo to learn Spanish. She has been engaging with it every day for two months now. It’s fun to watch; the app is seriously adorable, with a fun mix of brightly animated characters and singsong voices. But the idea was for her and me to be able to have little conversations in Spanish, and there’s one element of the program that’s leaving me impatient.

Duolingo is certainly teaching my daughter all kinds of vocabulary. Her head is now stocked full of words for family members and colors. She’s got the basic numbers, and she can tell me how to say “orange juice.”

But her humanity shines rather weakly through this knowledge. The essential problem is that human language is not just about saying what and where things are and which qualities they harbor, such as being green or tall. Language is about what happened, what’s different, what’s on the move. At its core, language is all about the action — to wit, the verbs.

Duolingo has, to be sure, taught my daughter a nice little collection of verbs. But if I could wave a magic wand, she’d know more of them — and fewer words for, say, “milk,” “sisters” and “shoes.” More important, Duolingo hasn’t yet taught her how Spanish verbs are conjugated: that, for example, “I speak” is “hablo” but “you speak” is “hablas” and “we speak” is “hablamos.”

The program offers a chart that can be consulted, but as learning tools go, charts are rather unhelpful, except for inveterate language nerds like me. They’re certainly not ideal for young learners who have been conditioned by the rest of the Duolingo experience to expect bright colors and cuddly characters. As a result, this means that the verbs Duolingo has given my daughter aren’t turned on yet. They’re like Christmas toys you can’t really use until a day later because the batteries weren’t included.

I can’t wait until the Spanish verbs truly kick in for my daughter. It’s easy to think that language is all about nouns: ‘truck,” “waiter,” “house,” “roast beef.” The first thing Adam does in Genesis is give names to animals. In the mini-series of Alex Haley’s landmark novel about slavery, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” the older enslaved person Fiddler teaches the newly arrived Kunta Kinte English by, again, explaining to him the names of animals. Likewise, when you ask people how to say a few things in their language, you are typically less likely to ask how to say “walk,” “drink” or “look” than to ask about things you can point at.

But life is about much else, and what ultimately conveys this “else” is verbs. What makes all those animals interesting is when they do things like walking, drinking and looking. Verbs can be said to be the core of what language is, Human Expression 1.0.

Although this might seem a revelation to English speakers, it would be intuitive to speakers of, for instance, many Native American languages. In some of them, names can be verbs, as in “Dances With Wolves” with Lakota, a language I wrote about here not long ago. The Lushootseed language of Washington State takes this concept beyond mere names, such that some specialists think it doesn’t have nouns at all, just verbs: The word for “coyote” is the phrase “is a coyote.”

In other languages, it’s adjectives that are elusive, with verbs taking over their jobs. In Japanese, today’s cup of tea “hots,” and yesterday’s cup “hotted.” In Fongbe, a language spoken in Togo and Benin, all the adjectives are actually verbs except for a mere 18.

An introductory class in linguistics generally teaches students that in many languages, you express what English speakers think of as a whole sentence with just a verb. In the New Guinea language Kopar, the way you would say “It keeps eating up the two of us” is “mbiməmanaŋgəmbaya,” which is the verb for “eat” — just the one little syllable “mə” — sandwiched between prefixes and suffixes that mean all of the rest. In the Native American language Cayuga, having a big house is a single verb: not “I have a big house” but “It big-houses me.”

This verbiness stands as counsel for people nationwide who seek to pass Native American languages on to new generations who have been raised mostly in English. The Cherokee language is another of the kind in which sentences can be verb sandwiches. So here’s to the teachers in Whittier, N.C., who are among those who have realized that learning Cherokee means not just memorizing those big words as chunks but learning what the parts of them mean so that you can, as it were, make your own sandwiches according to what you wish to say.

By contrast, no language loads up nouns in this way. While we hear a lot about how a language spoken by many Inuit, Inuktitut, supposedly has a huge number of words for “snow” (they don’t really have that many, but the Sami of northern Fennoscandia do), it doesn’t get around enough that verbs can express similarly subtle shades of experience. Take southern Thailand, where there are languages that have words — some of them called strange verbs — for as many as 15 varieties of “stink.” In the Jahai language there, one verb means to smell like mushrooms, stale food or a musty crawl space: a brown, hanging, just-short-of-pleasant kind of funk you almost don’t want to wave away.

In Navajo, if you are taking down, say, electrical cords from a high shelf one at a time, you say — this is yet another language in which sentences are often single words — “nahi‘diishlé.” The verb is the last bit, “lé,” which means to move something but only if it’s something like rope or wire, as opposed to a bunch of other verbs that mean “move” for other sorts of objects.

A language can even stretch verbs across shades of experience by singing, as it were. There is a language called Iau spoken by a tiny group in Indonesia’s Papua Province. The verb “see” is “doe,” uttered with a high pitch. To put the verb into past tense, you say it with a low pitch. To say that rather than mere glimpsing, you looked at something deliberately, you start on that low pitch and go even lower. And if you want to say the opposite, that you just looked something over quickly, you start high and then swoop low. It’s grammar as song: In Walt Whitman’s terms, Iau sings its verbs electric.

So now you may have a better sense of what drives my frustration with my daughter’s journey into Spanish so far, in which things are still at that grand old Berlitz stage of “The pen is red, but who is my sister?” Verbs are not as dominant in Spanish as they are in the other languages I described above. But the other day I overheard a guy hurrying up the street to join someone, saying, “¡Ya estoy caminando. No te preocupes. Puedo ayudarte. Espera, espera!” That was basically, “I’m walking (to you now). Don’t worry. I can help you. Wait, wait!” This was perfectly ordinary speech, and it entailed four verbs and zero nouns or adjectives. Not once did the man mention orange juice or the color of his jacket.

I also can’t help comparing my daughter’s present abilities in Spanish with her learning English at around age 2, when kids customarily start speaking their native tongue. The first few times she used two words together, one of those words was a verb. (Yes, I made a log of her language development.) The first instance I noted was “Mommy comin’”; the second was when we were watching a cartoon involving Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and an alarm clock that keeps waking them up and she exclaimed, “They’re sleepin’!” Note that she didn’t say “Porky!” or “Daffy!” or “clock!” but zeroed in on the sleeping: the verb, as always.

My daughter will get there with her Spanish. It, of course, takes human beings far longer to process a language when they aren’t immersed in it. Duolingo is a smashingly yummy teaching tool, kiwi-strawberry gelato as an app. But since she isn’t able to really use verbs yet, it’s as if my daughter were taking a cooking class in which she’s happily slicing and dicing things, tossing them into pans and whisking up delicious sauces — but without having yet learned how to turn the stove on.

I remember when I was learning Spanish at around age 10. I was delighted when our teacher was explaining present-tense conjugation — again, language nerd — but I wouldn’t stop bugging her about when we were going to get to the past tense.

What was driving me, I think, was an intuition I could not have expressed at the time: that most of what we talk about is what happened and what’s happening and that to do so, we need verbs rather than just further iterations of “el sombrero rojo” and “¡Buenos dias!” It’s not an accident, I suspect, that the word “noun” comes from a word that meant just “name.” “Verb,” by contrast, comes from a word that meant … “word” — i.e., the real thing.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”


  1. Hello John,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I also wrote on this topic:

    I corresponded with linguists, but did not get any reply when I suggested that instead of saying “The cat sratches the doormat,” we could say “The catting sratches the doormatting.” Is that too crazy?


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