Dionysian Definition of the Noun in Ancient Grammar

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-14


All branches of science are based on true tenets. One of the fundamental truths about grammar is recognized the referential definition of a noun, according to which this part of speech denotes an object. Such understanding of a noun has no alternative in the European linguistic tradition. The differences among definitions in different sources of grammar concern the verbal expression rather than a conceptual aspect: “The noun is a word that is accompanied by a representation of an object , corporeity is a characteristic sign of a noun” [Shanidze, 1980:36]; “The noun is a part of speech, which brings together words that express corporeity with the categories of number, definiteness and indefiniteness, case, and possession” [Kononov, 1956:64]; “As a part of speech, the noun is classified  on the basis of three aspects: semantic, morphological and syntactic aspects. With the semantic aspect, the noun denotes substances, i.e. spiritual beings, substances”, writes the author of The Theoretical Grammar of the French Language, V. Gak [Gak, 1986: 67,68]. The author of The Theoretical Grammar of the English Language, M. Blokh relates the object meaning of the noun to the priority of this part of speech in naming: “The noun as a part of speech denotes the categories of a substance or an object, which means that the noun is the main nominative of the parts of speech” [Blokh, 2004: 49-50]. According to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by R. Huddleston and G. Pullum: “Noun: a grammatically distinct category of words, which includes those denoting all kinds of physical objects, such as persons, animals, and inanimate objects” [Huddleston... 2007:83].

We first encounter the definition of the noun with reference to an object in the work of Dionysius, „Τέχνη Γραμματική“ (Téchne grammatiké): “The noun  is a declensional  part of speech, which denotes a body or an object (without a body), for example: stone, upbringing” [Desnitskaya... 1980:216]. Is the cited definition a result of the observations made by the grammarian of Alexandria on how the noun was used in sentences? If we take into consideration the function rather than the form, we should give the question a negative answer because in the ancient Greek language, as in modern languages, the noun also denoted the place and the time together with an object, for example: ημέρας, „in the daytime”, νύκτος „at night“, δευτεραῖος  „(on) the next day“, οχοτατος „in the dark“, ἐξ' ἀριστεράς „from the left“; „τρίτατοί αφίκοντο ἐἰς τὴν πόλίν“ „on the third day, they came to the city“. The examples are taken from a book by Akaki Urushadze, The Ancient Greek Language. The author distinguishes suffixes of the local connotation in nouns: “The suffix -i was an element that denoted the local case. Forms derived from it became adverbs. -i is used in singular, while in plural it is replaced by the suffix -σι“: Μαραθῶνι” „in Marathon“, “Μέγαρoi” „in Megara“, ἐν Ἀθήνήςi „in Athens“, Ὀλυμπιάςi „in Olympia“ [Urushadze, 1987:115, 116]. Dionysian grammar also fails to reflect the fact that in ancient Greek, as in all other languages, the noun was used as the noun part of the predicate (nomen preadicati): ἔργον ονδὲν δνειδος „there is no shame in working” [Urushadze, 1987:301]. “In his grammar, Dionysius does not make a distinction among nouns, adjectives, and numbers, but he only gives the meaning of corporeity to the general  category of the noun, which contradicts linguistic facts:

ἄγἄτον (kindness)-ἄγἄτος (kind)

ἀνθρωπός (human being) - ἄνθρωπίνος (human)

ἀρχή  (beginning) - ἀρχάιος (beginner)

ἀγρός  (field)- ἀγρίος (of the field)

[Urushadze, 1987: 377]

At the same time, in the definition in question Dionysius makes a distinction between a physical object (stone) and a mental one (upbringing); Aristotle, in his work Categories, paid attention to the difference between physical objects (primary substances) and concepts (secondary substances); he established the location of words denoting physical objects (primary substances) in discussion-idea. According to Aristotle, if words denoting physical objects and concepts (type, class=გვარეობითი ცნება) are used in a discussion, they always come first serving as the subject, because a concept refers to a concrete object and not vice versa – a concrete object referring to a concept. Thus, the primary substance (physical object) in discussion “is not said about any subject and is not given in any subject” [Aristotle, 1978: 55].

All branches of science represent a theory that can also be based on axioms. It would not be a great overstatement to note that the definition - “A noun is a class of words that denotes an object” [Urushadze, 1987] has long been considered a kind of axiom in grammatical thinking. According to its advanced age, it can be equated to the well-known definition of a sentence: “A sentence is an organized group of words that denotes a complete idea” [Chikobava, 1928]. Both of these definitions are represented in the first European grammar by Dionysius. As we have compared the definitions of a sentence and a noun that are well-established in today’s grammar, we should also note that since the 19th century, scholars have established that the Dionysian definition of a sentence is, in fact, incorrect and have tried to amend it accordingly. A brilliant analysis of this problem is given in Arnold Chikobava’s work, The Problem of a Simple Sentence in Georgian. As for the definition “A noun is a class of words that denotes an object”, no one has doubted its verity. The definition that was accepted as an axiom first by Roman authors Mark Varon, Aelius Donatus, and Priscian and then by Arab grammarians was also repeated in European grammar theories in the late Middle Ages and thus survived until now. We have not encountered a single source of grammar in which the noun is defined differently. From the grammar of Dionysius up to all modern grammar theories, corporeity is named as the main characteristic of a noun.

The novelty of Dionysius is the separation of “an object without a body” (upbringing) along with a physical object, a “body” (stone), to use the author’s terminology. The “object without a body” (upbringing) is an idea, concept, which does not have a corresponding physical object in the universe. In the work “On the Soul“, Aristotle calls “Representations” “objects of feeling, albeit without material” [Aristotle, 1976:440], but he does not refer to ideas as objects in any of his writings. Abstract concepts - “upbringing”, “knowledge”, “relation”, satisfaction”, correctness”, “bounty”… have no direct connection with physical objects. They can be referred to as objects figuratively only on the basis of similarity with real objects. Both need a name: a concept is expressed and a physical object is denoted by a name; in other words, both a concept and a physical object are signifiers in relation to a name. By conditional unification of a concept and a physical object, Dionysius forms the concept of a “universal object”, on which he bases the definition of a name: a name always denotes an object (physical or conceptual).

Aristotle studied the structure of a concept (argumentation) in a sentence (expression) and, for this reason, he used the last two terms in The Organon with the meaning of both an expressor of an idea and an idea itself. For the Greek philosopher, both an idea and a sentence constituted logos — spoken speech [Aristotle, 1978:95]. With the definition “A sentence is an organized  group of words that denotes a complete idea” [Desnitskaya… 1980: 216], Dionysius left only one, linguistic meaning of the sentence, which expresses an idea. However, the definition of Dionysius was not a purely linguistic one; it was based on an idea (argumentation) and, for this reason, was logicistic. The influence of Aristotle’s logic teaching was so great that neither the ancient grammarians nor those of the Middle Ages were able to see the syntactic structure of a sentence beyond the logical structure. “This is how it happened - transferring a teaching on a statement (or a sentence) and its parts – the subject and the predicate – from logic into grammar”, writes Arnold Chikobava [Chikobava, 1967:13]. In addition, this “transfer” did not take place by itself and momentarily. Ancient grammar theories retain no information on the subject and the predicate, while they define the noun denoting an object, quality, and number logicistically, like Dionysius – only with a reference to an object. Interestingly, due to logicism, the definition of the noun, even in the form of the definition of the noun, had appeared in grammar before the formation of the noun in the ancient Greek and Latin languages. Indeed, it is strange that, in his “Short Grammar”, the Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus defines the name logicistically – as the noun.  “A noun is a part of speech which, by means of the case, denotes an object or a phenomenon individually or as a general concept” [Donatus, 2003:120]; then, he goes on to talk about forms of comparison of the noun understood in such a way. The confusion of the noun class and the noun shifted from the ancient grammar theories to the grammars of other languages, including the grammar in “Kalmasoba” by Ioane Bagrationi: “A name is a part of speech, denoting a substance, an object, or a person, for example, sky, country, man, horse, sage, white… A noun is classified into nouns and Adjectives [Bagrationi, 1815:37].

Granted, descriptive grammar was logicistic, but it was still directed to the language. Forming a scholarly view on language required to overcome logicism. But the linguistic thought developed in another direction. The view on language, as the physical form intended for only expressing ideas, remained unchanged from the ancient age through the Middle Ages. In the course of time, it became clear that the forms and laws of thinking established by Aristotle in The Organon are universal. It was deemed true that people of different nationalities think logically and in the same manner, while they express their thoughts with language differently, which means that thinking is universal, while the language that expresses it is national. Doubts about the language as acting as the expressor of ideas emerged as early as in the ancient philosophy. In the interrelationship of ideas, objects, and noun class, Plato attached absolute importance to ideas – perpetual substances that form unilaterally determined concepts. It was considered that a physical and, thus, a changeable word could not always convey a true idea precisely. Aristotle also distrusted words due to their multiple meanings; although, according to his teaching, a sentence, not an individual idea, can be true. In the 17th century, René Descartes considered it possible to transform the natural language with mathematical principles so that every idea would become clear and simple. This philosophical assumption determines the direction of the development of the linguistic thought.


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