“And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul. “

– John Muir

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein



You would think the daughter of an English, professor and someone who completed an undergraduate degree  in Literature and Language would easily grasp the metaphor of noun and verb outside of its grammatical context.  Alas,  a metaphor that for some would be what my Dad would have called, “a firm grasp of the obvious,” was illusive to me.

I encountered this metaphor used in two very different forums in the very same week.  This made me pause and want to explore it more deeply.  I realized that part of my life’s journey was a dance between the meaning of these two words and the limits of my language comprehension could be what caused me  to miss obvious connections that others seemed to see so clearly.

After a quick google search, I found a good description of noun and verb on  Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

I briefly chuckled remembering its ancestor, an old fashioned, red leather bound,  thick tome,  to which my Dad sent me  whenever I couldn’t understand the meaning of a word:

What is a noun?

Nouns make up the largest class of words in most languages, including English.  A noun is a word that refers to a thing (book), a person (Betty Crocker), an animal (cat), a place (Omaha), a quality (softness), an idea (justice) or an action (yodeling).  It is usually a single word, but not always:

 Merriam-Webster  explains a verb  as follows:

What is a verb?

Verbs are words that show an action (sing), occurrence (develop), or state of being (exist). Almost every sentence requires a verb.


My first encounter with viewing the world through a noun or verb context was in reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  In her book, Kimmerer combines her understanding of her Native American wisdom, with her scientific training in botany.  She details how her intuitive native observation of plant patterns  was discounted by college professors when she decided to study botany.   She eloquently weaves her life’s journey based on her native tradition coupled with her understanding of botany.  The result is a poetic expression of what we can learn from plants in our natural surroundings.

Learning The Grammar of Animacy is the chapter in the book that started my pondering of nouns and verbs being more than language structures.  In reading the chapter, I recalled my own studies of European languages that sparked curiosity over differing language rules for gendered nouns and verb tenses.  In her adult years,  Kimmerer decided to study her ancestors’ language, Potawatomi.  She struggled with the stark contrast of the structure of that language to English.  She points out:

English is a noun based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things.  Only 30 percent of English words are  verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent…  European languages often assign gender to nouns. but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine.  Nouns and verbs both are animate and inanimate.  You hear a person with a word that is completely different from the one which you hear an airplane.  Pronous, articles, plurals, demonstratives, verbs…are all aligned in Potawani to provide different ways to speak of the living world and the lifeless one.  Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive.  (Kimmerer, Robin Wall.  Braiding Sweetgrass.)


WOW!  The Potawatomi language uses more “connective” verbs of action, experience or  a “state of being”, versus nouns that refer to independent descriptions of people, places or things.  My musings around what it would mean to communicate in this way meandered over many paths for several days.  I thought about my walks in nature where observed feelings about my surroundings take over my sense of being.  I am very much “being” while I’m in nature or watching wildlife.

Flash forward a few days and I’m now listening to the Sounds True Production of Tara Brach’s January 21 -30, 2020 Radical Compassion Challenge.  I’m listening to the tale end of an interview with Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a neuroscientist who specializes in Mindfulness.  He has studied the neuroscience of Empathy and Compassion for several decades.  I grab a pen to attempt  to capture what I’m hearing:

In modern culture we perceive the Self as a Solo entity (noun like).  Our Body is a noun like entity.  It’s a cognitive error to view ourselves as separate, limited to our 5 senses.  As we move toward spacious awareness its more like a verb – an event that is unfolding as massive interconnectedness…

Going from a noun to verb like nature of our being, we can feel like we lose control so we want to hold onto the “me”  quality which is a noun rather than explore the verb like category of  an integrated existence…  

Noun is non-integrative and causes us to miss the reality of interconnection…

Humans have differentiated from Nature so we use the Earth like a trash can and mess with intra connectivity…

(apologies for to Dr. Siegel for any inaccuracies as I paraphrased excerpts of what I thought I heard)

Double WOW!  My head hurts like it used to in an undergraduate philosophy class that questioned – if a tree fell in the forest and no one heard it, did it make a sound?

I wondered if we had more verbs than nouns in the English language, would we feel more connected to each other, Mother Earth, the Universe?  If this koan makes your mind meander as mine continues to do, would you please drop me a note and enlighten me on your conclusions?   Best wishes for finding spacious connection in your world!


  1. Mei February 4, 2020 at 6:34 pm Reply

    I totally believe that language plays a big role in shaping the way we perceive the world. I also find it fascinating that there are words in portuguese ( and spanish) that do not have a one-word equivalent in english. Words that invoke emotions… like “saudade”.

    • Denyse February 10, 2020 at 12:43 pm Reply

      Mei – Thanks for you comment. I have found the same to be true with some French words. Sometimes the feeling emoted is much stronger than the definition of the word itself!

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