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Parts of Speech: A Reconsideration in Grammar and Philosophy

There come times when a thing you’ve known time out of memory suddenly opens before you, blossoms into beauty where you’d never known to seek it. These are times of transfiguration, and in their witness to both the humble hiddenness of beauty and the deep meaningfulness of reality, they refresh our faith in a world where “being indoors each one dwells” and in a Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” as Hopkins exulted.

The other day I read a passage that opened one of these times for me. It had to do with, of all things, parts of speech. Here it is:

The parts of speech, including nouns and verbs, take the individual word and place it, by means of the sentence, into human discourse. And “more particularly,” Ricoeur writes, “the noun and the verb are parts of speech thanks to which our signs are . . . ‘returned to the universe’ under the aspect of space and of time.” In “completing the word as noun and verbs, these categories render our signs capable of grasping the real and keep them from closing up in the finite, closed order” of the structuralist system.

There are lovely buried metaphors contained in what Ricoeur has to say about discourse. The image of the sign being freed by the noun and verb to return to the universe of space and time is a variation on the theme of the Word become flesh (John 1) and the Son of God who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). And just as the word is to Ricoeur the unit that moves out of the system of signs and into the reality and history of discourse, so too is Jesus Christ the Son of God who leaves the security of heaven to make his way into the dangerous far country of earth. (Lundin, Beginning with the Word, 97-98)

Wonderful indeed: the parts of speech (that grammar lesson I have expounded, exemplified, diagrammed, assessed, and corrected, and expounded again, year upon year) is actually one of the most poignant metaphors for the Incarnation that I have ever encountered.

Wonder of wonders: some (even unbelieving) language theorists argue that the concept of Christ’s Incarnation is what makes language possible at all.

How can this be?


“Words” are sounds that communicate things; this much seems plain. But beyond this solid ground lies a quicksand of questions. If words are mere sounds, how do they communicate so much more than the sounds of rain falling, dogs barking, sirens wailing? Why do humans alone turn their sounds into poetic raptures and philosophical speculations? Mustn’t it imply some deep, mysterious, substantial connection between word and thing—some way in which human sounds actually reach out and grab reality in a way that animal and mechanical sounds cannot? But if words and things are thus connected, then how can lying, deceit, manipulation—all of which involve mis-matches of word and thing—be possible, let alone so prevalent? If every thing in our experience has a word connected to it, why are there still so many times we find ourselves able only to say, “Words cannot express?”

These two poles of our experience—the kinship of words and things, and their alienation—are expressed in two opposing theories of language that assume opposite relationships between word and thing.

Children, pagans, pantheists, and poets tend to assume a univocal, or identical, relation between word and thing; word and thing magically share in each other’s substance, so that to have one is to have the other. When my one-year-old son, just beginning to learn words, calls out from his crib, “Ma-ma!”, he expects me to appear. When he throws items out of my grocery cart with a joyous shout of “Ball!”, he believes that whatever he thus names becomes a ball, be it an onion or an egg. The poet’s impulse is simply the maturation of the child’s: laboring to choose each right word, the poet “throws” his poem out into the world and, not unjustly, believes that whoever reads it will be brought, by the magic of its language, to “become” the poem by identifying with the perspective and emotion it embodies. Implicit in this understanding is the idea that a given word belongs to a thing, that there is somewhat a “right word” for a thing, that humans in general can share a sense when a word does not fit a thing.

By contrast, modern adults (whom education, experience, and disappointment have initiated into the dominant culture of closed-system, secular naturalism) tend to assume an equivocal, or arbitrary, relation between word and thing; word and thing have no substantial or intrinsic relation, but are merely assigned to one another so that things can be more easily used—or manipulated. A rose, we agree with Juliet, by any other name would be as sweet; there seems no necessary connection between the flower and its name. A man is called Montague by accident—or by malice, as a man might be called chattel, or slave, or vermin. A stretch of woods along the highway is called “state preserve” or “blight,” depending whether the preservationist or the developer has deeper pockets. A person calls herself Mary or Marcia or Mark, depending on her inclination, for one’s name merely indicates one’s chosen identification. There is no “right word” for a thing, but whatever word the powerful choose to assign it that they might do their will upon it.

Very different architectures of truth and reality are raised upon these contrasting foundations. If words are univocal, part of the substance of things, then learning is a process of discovery, of coming to recognize and understand and rightly name the nature and meaning of the world we inhabit. If words are part of the substance of things, then the most important words in our vocabulary—love, mercy, God—are descriptions, pronouncements, of great though unseen realities. But if words are equivocal, arbitrary signs for things, then learning is a process of making, of assigning identities and meanings to the world we inhabit or of learning to navigate the complex webs of identities and meanings those before us or above us have already assigned. If words are arbitrary signs for things, then the most important words in our vocabulary—love, mercy, God—are terms by which we signify our great but uncorrelated desires and longings.

Yet ultimately, both foundations prove faulty, and deep fissures threaten their structures’ soundness. The univocal view of language cannot be substantiated by the daily claims and experiences of human life. How can words be part of the substance of things when thousands of languages can be spoken in one nation alone—when any given language changes over time, so that words come to mean their opposites? How can words rightly name things, when abuse can go by the name of love, or exploitation by the name of industry? How can words and things coinhere, when death daily drills in us that to have the word is not always to have the thing?

But the equivocal view of language cannot substantiate the most persistent claims and experiences of human history. Why, as poets incontrovertibly know, are some words right in a sentence and others wrong? Why, if naming is a power game, do healthy men agree that moral horror is the right response to men who name other men “vermin” and seek to exterminate them? Why, if it is just chemical imbalance, can humans’ nagging sense of the transcendent never be dismissed?

Ages of debates, from Plato to Saussure, have yielded no explanation of word and thing able to satisfy both the univocal and equivocal poles of our linguistic experience. Whichever theory one chooses leaves myriad exceptions, too many to dismiss as happy accidents or tragic glitches in an otherwise consistent system. All efforts to comprehend the essence of language by contemplating language itself, to discern intelligible form within the cloud of its mystery, yield an impasse.

But why, you may ask, does this matter? Why all the philosophizing over the simple, incontrovertible fact of language’s ability to communicate?

Many of us, either ignorant or complacent regarding this impasse, are content with language’s rough-and-ready, demonstrable ability to vaunt us over our daily practical hurdles and to buoy us above most metaphysical misgivings. But if one determines to follow the logic wherever it leads, and to refuse to go where it does not, then the impasse at the essence of language blocks the pathway to transcendent belief. If no connection can be established between expressive word and actual thing, then there is no reason to believe that the words “God,” “heaven,” or “hell” express any thing other than manipulative human moods and projections.

If the essence of language cannot be assured, then, it seems, those who reason are unable to believe, and those who believe do so without reason.


So here we are: language seems to inhabit two distinct worlds. Considered in the world of abstraction—in a Platonic world of ideal “word” and “thing”—language seems to defy understanding the more we try to understand it. But this impasse baffles us because we all know that, somehow or other, language still works. Considered not in the abstract, but in the concretion of earthy stuff and human history—what we might call the world of speech—language is eminently usable: predictable but surprising, reliable but subject to mistreatment, not able to express everything but able to express far more than we even attempt.

The world of speech is a world we, as speakers, know intimately, like a hiker knows a mountain. But to know it more comprehensively, to know its “big picture” and relation to valleys and plains and other mountains, we must learn to know it like a cartographer; that is, like a mapmaker of language, or a grammarian.

The grammarian begins his survey of language with the parts of speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, interjection. Note that phrase: “parts of speech.” For most of my years learning and teaching grammar, I have understood that parts are to speech what pieces are to pie: slices divvying up a whole. Nouns make up this much of language, verbs that much, and so on till only a teensy slice of interjections is left in the dish. I had to overlook the fact that the analogy so quickly crumbles: nouns sometimes act like verbs, and verbs inexplicably become adjectives—and try not even to think about verbals! Still, all things considered, this seemed to me the best possible interpretation of the phrase, “parts of speech.”

Only lately have I begun to understand that parts might be to speech what parts are to drama. An actor auditions and “gets a part” for a particular play; he is now “part of” the dramatic production. What if words, too, audition for their parts in a sentence? What if “running” gets the part of noun in one sentence, verb in another, adjective in still another? What if speech itself is the drama of language?

This seems to be the understanding of Scott Crider in his lovely rhetoric text, The Office of Assertion. Note the verbs, bolded below, that describe what words do; they are words of the theatre.

Every word is one of these parts of speech—the noun, the verb, the adjective, the adverb, the pronoun, the preposition, the conjunction, the verbal, or the interjection—and many words can perform as more than one part of speech. In the metaphysics of grammar, each part of speech concerns one of three conditions—being, becoming, or relation: Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives concern being, and so too do both gerunds and participles, the first a verbal noun, the second a verbal adjective; verbs, infinitives (perhaps), and adverbs concern becoming; and prepositions and conjunctions concern relation. . . . A rhetor who attends to nouns and verbs will be a better leader of souls toward any subject at hand because grammar discloses something constitutive of the world itself: everything has being, motion, and/or relation. Rhetoric is a liberal art because it concerns not only grammar, but also the nature of the world such grammar represents and enacts. (83-84)

According to Crider, words, considered grammatically, perform, represent, and enact. They are not “parts of” speech so much as they are “participants in” the vast drama that speech is. And the subject of this drama is, in Crider’s words, “being, becoming, [and] relation,” the “constitutive [aspects] of the world itself”—the world, that is, of things: of stones and streams and children and chalk and shovels and wheels and ideas and beliefs that be, become, and relate. Speech is language dressed for acting in this theatre of things: language harnessed like a horse to draw the chariots of eloquence, language yoked like an ox to pull the burdens of action, language married like a bride to birth the life of ideas.

What was impossible in the world of abstraction—to connect words to things in a consistent way—becomes natural in the world of speech. Words in themselves elude our grasp; words in speech offer themselves up to be used and even abused in the time and space wherein we dwell. Words as speech, that is, come to dwell among us, their unknowable essences becoming known presences; used of us, abused of us, believed or rejected—or crucified—by us . . . words, the Word, becomes flesh.

And here, the impasse blocking the way to belief becomes an arc spanning the gap to it, as described in that passage that stirred my wonder. Roger Lundin draws from the work of two philosophers, Hans Georg Gadamer (agnostic) and Paul Ricoeur (practicing Christian) to suggest that the Incarnation provides the only metaphor (to Gadamer) and reality (to Ricoeur) capable of grounding a theory of language with explanatory power equal to our paradoxical experience of language. From their unknowable essences, Ricoeur writes, words are “‘returned to the universe’ under the aspect of space and time” as parts of speech, “categories [which] render our signs capable of grasping the real and keep them from closing up in the finite, closed order” of an equivocal system. Concludes Lundin, “Just as the word is to Ricoeur the unit that moves out of the system of signs and into the reality and history of discourse, so too is Jesus Christ the Son of God who leaves the security of heaven to make his way into the dangerous far country of earth.”

We are used to thinking of how God grasped particular human languages at particular moments in their historical development to tell the story of His in-breaking upon humanity and history. But so too, may we come to think, He has grasped language itself to tell the same tale.

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