Nominal classification

Nouns express how we perceive the world, but to reach balance between precision and economy, languages classify nouns. This process is nominal classification.

Classifying our surrounding in the world is one of the most basic task of our brains: minds would cease to function if we had to attend to each of the millions of stimuli which … constantly bombard our receptor organs… The nervous system and the brain itself function as a multi-leveled hierarchy of filtering and classifying devices, which eliminate a large proportion of the input as irrelevant ‘noise’, and assemble the relevant information into coherent patterns before it is represented to consciousness (Koestler; 1983: 201).


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This fact is also demonstrated in terms of biology since classification abilities are necessary for the survival of every organism, as an example, in order to survive, creatures must learn in their earliest age to identify if other animals are a threat or not and which food is eatable while others are not. For humans, this perception of the world is then expressed via one of our most unique ability among other existing animals on Earth: language.

Nominal classification in languages of the world

The two most widespread systems to classify nouns in languages are noun classes and numeral classifiers. As an example of the first (also called grammatical genders), we find languages such as French which categorizes nouns in masculine feminine with grammatical agreement between the noun and other elements of the clause, e.g. un grand livre one(M) big(M) book(M) ‘a big book’ and une grande table ‘one(F) big(F) table(F) ‘a big table’. On the other hand, numeral classifier languages like Mandarin Chinese do not have this kind of agreement, but rely on a word inserted before the noun to assign him to a specific class of objects, e.g. yi4 ben3 shu1 one CL-volume book ‘a book’, the classifier ben3 is highlighting the fact the following noun belongs to the category of a volume, including possibilities such as a magazine, a book, a notebook among others. Studying how different languages apply different structures to fulfill the same purpose of classification is therefore the subject of our study.

Contact: Marc Tang,

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