Friday, 30 March 2012


Sometimes, someone asks you a question that you wouldn't even have thought of.

I attended a training event on Tuesday, and the other people there were from various humanities and social science disciplines, none of them linguistics. We each had to present a talk on our research, and then there were questions afterwards. One woman, doing a fine art creative practice PhD (in ceramics), asked me this:
Is it important that everything is put into one category or another?
Typical creative type, you might think, not wanting things to be 'labelled'. She meant the labels like 'noun', 'verb', 'question particle' and so on. And it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Why do things have to be categorised? Without the categories, there's no problem to have to be solved.

Well, it's not just linguists doing it for the sake of it, because we like things to be rigid and ordered and follow the rules (though some of us do). These categories, although the labels are artificial, are natural classes. Consider the birds (as Brian didn't quite say).

A goldfinch is a natural thing, I think we can all agree. It occurs in nature without human intervention (all right, it's been captured, bred and sometimes escaped, and introduced to various bits of the world, but it wasn't created by humans).

This goldfinch is called Harold. That category (Harold) consists of just this one individual. Goldfinches generally, though, have a specific scientific classification: Carduelis carduelis. That's its species. Then we can identify the category of passerines, the larger category of birds, and the even larger category of animals. There are other categories in between too, each of which Harold is a member of.

The point is, although the names for these categories were chosen and imposed by humans, the categories themselves were not. Humans observed similarities between organisms, and those that share characteristics form a natural class (for example, birds, which have feathers and wings, or living things, which have the characteristics of MRS NERG - movement, reproduction, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, respiration, growth). Everything in nature is categorisable, and not because scientists have imposed those categories, but because they really are a category.

In the study of language, we do the same. We say that all nouns are nouns because they behave like nouns, they share all the characteristics of nouns, and they are different from things that are not nouns. We called them nouns, but the category was there before we came along and noticed it and named it.

I didn't give the questioner an answer quite as full as this because I couldn't think on the spot. But I hope I got across to her the message that we're not just making all this up - language is a real, natural object. We're just describing it and trying to explain how it is the way it is.


  1. It’s true that the example you give (Carduelis carduelis) is a “natural” one in a biological sense, because all goldfinches belong to the same species, and can produce offspring only with other goldfinches. However, not all categories are natural ones in the same sense. Many are just useful, so that we can communicate with each other. For example, it is useful to talk about “trees”, but apart from the fact that they are tall woody plants, they are quite difficult to define precisely, and they don’t form a “natural” group in a biological sense, like goldfinches (they aren’t all closely related to each other: tree-like plants have evolved multiple times). This is a category that was coined by humans for communication purposes.

  2. Yes, that's a good point, I hadn't thought about that sort of 'class'. The situation is a bit more complicated than my simplified explanation. Of course we also use some terms for communicative ease. But actually, although the trees aren't all closely related, they are called 'trees' because they share some characteristics (being tall and woody) and behaviours (not sure what behaviours trees have specifically, but maybe there are some). So they form a sort of external class rather than a strictly biological one, maybe? Anyway, my analogy probably won't stand up to this scrutiny :)