Mar. 18th, 2017


Mar. 18th, 2017 06:17 pm
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
A game of Scrabble set me thinking about proper nouns, common nouns, whether there are also proper and common adjectives, and the use of capital letters. It arose, obviously, from a discussion of whether particular words are permitted or not, but went beyond the rules of Scrabble. Like many of the best after-dinner conversations, it may or may not make sense - but we won't know until I have written it down.

The house rules under which the game in question was played required that the youngest participant be allowed - or at least, given every opportunity - to win, so one or two words passed unchallenged, notably DETROIT and VINANE - formed by adding a V to INANE - and a fine pair of words they are, too. There was unrest when BoyBear divested himself of his last letter, which was a Q, by placing it in front of AT, and since the house in question was not this one, the only dictionary available did not acknowledge QAT (or QI, though he didn't try that one). So no-one made difficulties when a kibbitzer pointed out to the youngest participant where he could place a B to make IBO.

Afterwards, though, we talked it through: as the name of a language, it takes a capital letter, doesn't it? But does that make it a proper noun? Fortunately, it isn't necessarily a noun at all: it could be adjectival, as in 'Ibo vowels'. That's probably why I wouldn't think twice about placing ENGLISH or LATIN on the Scrabble board.

Yet, as BoyBear said, we learned in school that there is a big, important divide between proper nouns which are the names of individual people or things, and are marked by capital letters, and common nouns, which aren't. There are plenty of examples where this is simple and clear, but have we stumbled into one of those areas where the English grammar we were taught in school imposes rules which exist only in the minds of grammarians? I am trying to answer this question with the aid of three examples that this use of capital letters is not a universal rule:
  1. The German language capitalises all nouns: do Germans perceive the proper / common distinction as we do?

  2. French is much more sparing with capitals: language names, since that's where I came in, don't have them (English is l'anglais, un Anglais would be an Englishman, and crème anglaise is custard). Nor - can you tell it's nearly dinner time? - do wines (un bordeaux).

  3. I thought that I had to some extent picked up this habit, and don't normally write things like 'the University'. But The Guardian is even more frugal, and I shout at it that this or that ought to be capitalised...

It's just me, isn't it?

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