Noun is difficult

Polysemy is one of those concepts I got from Steven Pinker and was totally hoping would be a part of my Applied Linguistics MA course.  It wasn’t, of course, since it is more relevant for philologists and other deep parsers of language than ESL/EFL teachers.

In a nutshell, polysemy is the ability of words to have several related meanings, for instance “supermarket” referring to both a business and a building.  In English we use the preposition “at” to show our location with reference to the former and “in” with the latter (“at the supermarket” not necessarily being physically inside of it), which shows that the conceptual difference is there even for people who are not explicitly aware of it.

In keeping with my general theory of language, in essence that everything affects everything else, I did some wondering about how the lack of plurals in Japanese might affect polysemy in ways other than the obvious – that each noun has to stand for multiple instances of itself in addition to the usual (for English at least) one.

“Sumo” – the sport, the person, the people

Actually, that picture is a bad example since the people who do the sport sumō are not generally called sumō in Japanese, but sumōtori or rikishi.  The principle is right though – for most jobs the word for the job itself (e.g. “carpentry”) is the same for the person (“carpenter”) and the people (“carpenters”) who do it, which leads to fun translations such as “I’m doing a banker now” and “teacher is hard”.

Many of the usual suspects for polysemy in English are similarly flexible in Japanese – Steven Pinker brought up the example of “window” referring to both the portal from interior to exterior and the glass blocking that space, which is the same in Japanese: One can close a window or escape through one.  In most cases the additional meaning given to a noun as a result of plural nouns not existing in Japanese is that 「窓」mado (“window”) can also refer to more than one window, a specific window or the abstract concept of windows (but not the PC OS, which is called ウィンドウズ uindouzu).

I don’t envy oldsters in Japan who have to learn all this katakana just to skype with their grandkids.

This is a reliable way the lack of plurals in Japanese affects noun polysemy – a single word stands for one of that thing, many of it, or the idea of the thing.  There are other differences (for instance an instrument standing for the sound of a particular person playing it, as in “I want to hear his guitar”) but this one is consistent, and given Japanese grammar, inevitable.

That abstract way of using nouns leads to common J-E errors that at first look like simple neglect of the plural -s but I believe also reflect a deeper issue.  In English plural subjects are used in most contexts to stand for a thing in general or in the abstract, like “dogs are friendly” or “children love Disneyland” (you will sound like a 19th century sociologist if you say “the child loves Disneyland”, and a time-travelling one at that).  Students of Latin might know the real word for this, but I’m going to call it an infinitive noun  – an unbounded concept, not any specific instance of it or (despite its representation in English) multiple instances of it.  This is not the same as a mass noun, which many abstract concepts already are (“happiness”) but which may also refer to real instances of things (“furniture”).  Some examples of students neglecting to pluralize abstract ideas are sentences like “dog is friendly” or “child love Disneyland”.

Of course, students neglect to add plural -s to obviously plural nouns such as “wash your hand” too, which makes it hard for me to make this diagnosis with confidence.  If I am right, that students are struggling to map their mentalese, which knows that abstract dogs in general are not the same as multiple dogs in the real world, onto target-like English, then the fact that English speakers use plurals for both of those is worth pointing out explicitly.

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