Who's the boss? Follow that noun!

2nd December 2015 at 15:48


Dr Heather Martin, Subject Genius,Who's the boss? Follow that noun!

Let's face it. In school, the kids need to know who's boss. Can't afford to have any confusion on that point if we want to get things right. Which we do. Or else.

Well it's simple. The boss is the boss. And in linguistic terms, the boss is the noun.

In my primary classes, the noun rules. Not just proper nouns, with their signature capital letters. All nouns. Whatever language you're teaching, it's worth taking a collective look at a page of German just to make the point. All those nouns, every single one of them, bossing the page with their seigneurial capitals, just so you know who's in charge. Leaping out at you and clamouring for due respect and attention.

In the inegalitarian world of grammar, the noun really likes to throw its weight about. I ask my children to draw the word (the noun) 'noun' in BIG BLOCK LETTERS and add a crown or some muscles or both. Some of their nouns are truly terrifying, despotic figures. Some look rather gracious and benevolent.

I don't worry too much if they slip unwarily into some innocent gender stereotyping. After all, the binary terms 'feminine' and 'masculine' are still bandied about quite freely in the unreconstructed realm of languages teaching, perhaps more blithely than in any other social context. Might as well exploit them.

There's no getting away from it. Gender awareness is central to the tricky business of grammatical agreement. And built into the discourse is the rhetoric of governance. But luckily, feminine and masculine nouns have equal authority when it comes to exercising their authoritarian power over adjectives.

Those adjectives, think about it. It's faintly scandalous, really. Their sole purpose and entire raison d'être is to describe the noun. Yes, that's right, they are totally subordinate to the noun, the boss. Without the noun, they are nothing.

This is sort of still true in English. But the relationship is a little more relaxed and fraternal. In English, adjectives don't have to go round adapting to the nouns they attach themselves to. They are groupies, for sure, and hangers-on, but hardly slaves. And it's all a bit more gender neutral. Cue another tip of the hat to German, and Latin and Greek too, why not, for their neuter nouns and non-binary inclusiveness.

In Spanish, on the other hand (to take a specific example), adjectives are literally followers, trailing slavishly after the noun, reflecting every mood and responding to every whim. Singular? Why yes sir, naturally! Plural, madam? At your bidding! Whatever the noun decrees, the adjective adheres to, like some kind of submissive grammatical chameleon.

We draw the word 'adjective' too. It tends to look rather weak and feeble as it trails along in the wake of master or mistress, bowing and scraping obsequiously.

Of course, we all know that rules are there to be broken (that way creativity often lies). And the truth is that adjectives don't always have to follow nouns in Latin languages. But it's fair to say that placing the adjective before the noun emphasises it in a variety of subtle (and often ceremonious or value-laden) ways, so implying a level of sophistication that is unlikely to arise in lesson 1. The postpositive adjective implicitly acknowledges the priority of the thing itself over the quality associated with it: the person matters more than whether he/she is white or black, for example; the fact that the animal is a dog rather than a cat outweighs the detail of whether it is short- or long-haired. As always, language reveals the way we view the world.

Dr Heather Martin, Subject Genius,Who's the boss? Follow that noun!

What with one thing and another being an adjective is bound to be stressful and cause an identity crisis or two. Things can become a little muddled at times. Why can't he/she just accept me as I am, the adjective might reasonably lament! And if your children have a heart, they will be eager to help the hard-pressed adjectives along, to smooth the path for them by getting things right. They set about matching adjectives to nouns for masculine, feminine, singular and plural with dedicated fervour, the kind of enthusiasm they might bring to solving any kind of puzzle. They even bring those wayward definite and indefinite articles firmly under control. It's all a game. But serious too. We are developing our observational and accuracy skills and attention to detail; we are cultivating discipline and rigour with almost military precision. Yet however rarefied the academic exercise, it never hurts to turn it into a story. Stories often provide the best mnemonics of all.

Sometimes, of course, I take it too far, and the children become rebellious. They begin to stand up for the downtrodden epithet and start muttering about revolution. Enough of this feudal system, they cry, off with those aristocratic heads! Suddenly everything I have so painstakingly taught them to master is turned on its head and the grammar of Cervantes and Lope de Vega ripped mercilessly to shreds.

A little bit of madness and mayhem never did anyone any harm. There's always room for thinking 'what if...'?

But hey, this is Spanish, and I am the Teacher. So I have Recourse at any Time to the commanding Status of that magisterial Noun, with the full Weight of the Real Academia backing me up. (Hang on - did that Adjective 'royal' just make a daring bid for Freedom? And is 'adjective' itself a Noun?!)

'Who rules?' I ask, possibly somewhat imperiously.

'The noun rules!' they cry in perfect unison.

'And who's the boss?'

They smile at me sweetly, like the clever up-and-coming nouns they are.



Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin.