Article published in:From Culture to Language and Back: The Animacy Hierarchy in language and discourse
Edited by Laure Gardelle and Sandrine Sorlin
[International Journal of Language and Culture 5:2] 2018
► pp. 163–183
Denominations of humans
The case of compounds in English
In English, the lexicon is one of the many areas affected by the asymmetry in the treatment of humans and inanimates. The study focuses on compounds. We compare compounds denoting human animates to those denoting inanimates. We find that there are proportionately few compounds for humans, and that this small proportion reveals a tendency for human animate nouns to be more opaque than nouns for inanimates. We propose that this is due to the way we conceptualize humans, i.e. as more than the sum of their parts. Humans resist transparent denominations because reducing a person to one characteristic amounts to ignoring his or her essential complexity. We take this to be a manifestation of anthropocentrism in language. Moreover, when human animate nouns are compounds (in spite of their tendency to be opaque), they exhibit two semantic characteristics that are not shared by inanimate nouns. The first one is that they tend to be derogatory. This again indicates that humans cannot easily be reduced to one characteristic. If they are, denominations tend to be negatively loaded. The second one is that they often involve the representation of a personal relationship (for example, a paper boy delivers newspapers, i.e. comes to someone’s place). Transparency is therefore meaningful.
- 1.1Scope of the study
- 1.2Aim of the study
- 1.3Research gap
- 1.4Corpus and method
- 2.Relatively few compounds for human animates
- 2.1Quantitative results
- 2.2Interpretation of the results: The special status of humans in language
- 2.2.2The human vs. non-human opposition
- 2.2.3Humans at the top of a scale
- 2.2.4The (extended) animacy hierarchy
- 2.2.5Relevance of the animacy hierarchy in this study
- 2.2.6Humans and the opacity requirement
- 3.The derogatory meaning of compounds which denote humans
- 3.1The process in which a person participates is negatively valued
- 3.2Negative connotations of the component words
- 3.3Nouns of animals
- 3.4Nouns of inanimates to designate humans
- 4.Interpersonal relationships
- 4.1Interpersonal relationships and transparency
- 4.2People who are at someone’s service
- 4.3People who come to your place
- 4.4Entering the private sphere
Published online: 28 June 2018
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