“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.
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!