Theresa HANSKE

PhD Student

Institute of General Linguistics, University of Cologne


Nouns and Verbs in Vietnamese


 Debates on how to determine word classes in Vietnamese center primarily around two questions: (a) whether adjectives constitute a word class on their own, and (b) whether classifiers can be established as a lexical class different from nouns. The noun-verb-distinction has attracted much less attention so far and in most studies on the language this distinction is taken for granted. In most dictionaries, however, we find a lot of lexical units which are double-classified as both nouns and verbs. Although it is not always clear what has motivated the lexicologists’ decisions in individual cases, the overall picture suggests that the noun-verb-distinction in Vietnamese is far from clear cut.
My hypothesis is that Vietnamese has a weak noun-verb-distinction. I attribute its “weakness” to the lexical organization of Vietnamese, which is such that the lexicon is not partitioned into two non-intersecting classes of Ns and Vs. It is only on the syntactic level that the noun-verb-distinction is well established. In other words, although nominals and verbals do exist and hence nouns and verbs are feasible as syntactic categories, nouns and verbs are not lexical categories in Vietnamese (for the difference between “lexical categories” and “syntactic categories” see Sasse (1993); cf. also Behrens (1995), Broschart (1997), Bisang (2008)).
I will put forward three arguments to show that Vietnamese lacks noun-verb-distinction in the lexicon. First, I will reassess those contexts which are treated as indicative for lexical nouns and verbs by some authors, such as the copula construction (cf. Raitza 1989). Contrary to what is widely assumed in the literature, they do not partition the lexicon and therefore cannot be used as diagnostic tests for lexical class membership of elements. My second argument concerns the ratio of categorically ambiguous and non-ambiguous elements. Many lexemes which would on most accounts be categorized as either nouns or verbs in fact manifest a high degree of flexibility by occurring both in N-slots and V-slots. The third argument addresses the old controversy of how to analyze constructions such as người lạ ‘stranger’, cái hôn ‘kiss’, sự huyền bí ‘secret’. For these, conflicting categorizations have been proposed in the literature, both regarding the whole structure and its parts (namely, as classifier phrases (CL+V); nominalizations (Nominalizer+V); compounds (N+V); cf. Adams 1989, Löbel 1996, Raitza 1989, Thompson 1984-85). From the perspective of lexical categorization of elements in nouns and verbs, these constructions are of special interest. At first sight, they look like a case in point for the lexical differentiation between Ns and Vs. They seem to confirm the idea that lexical Vs cannot be used as Ns “without further measures being taken” (Hengeveld 1992, similar Croft (2000); cf. Hengeveld et al. 2004). However, it can be shown that elements that look like lexical Vs in these constructions do not uniformly need to be prepared by extra material in order to be used as Ns. I conclude by locating my argumentation within the wider theoretical and typological discussion on word class systems.