Language, one of the principal means we use for communicating with each other, is usually made up of nouns and verbs, a convention of dividing our experience of reality into things and processes.
This basic structure is then elaborated with nouns that are designated as singular, plural and possessive, with verbs of different tenses, with words or groups of words that modify nouns and verbs, and then with groups of words that function as nouns. We’ve even invented verbs that act as nouns. However, the system we use for rendering reality into language is arbitrary, with each language shaping reality to conform to its particular structure. Consequently, we can’t really trust language to inform us of what is actually real — if our language stipulates that reality is divided into nouns and verbs, then that’s the reality we get.
This is the framework for appreciating a fascinating essay in which Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian Weekly, Aug. 7/15) introduces “nounism.” He explains that nounism is our inclination to make the abstract solid — we actually have an official word, reification, to describe this process. “Nouns,” Burkeman writes, “are the language of certainty, of things than can be grasped and dealt with.” In the process, however, nounism often distorts our perception of the world, “bestowing on certain things an added reality they don’t deserve.”
Burkeman suggest we consider “globalization” as an example. Nounism makes it seem “like a force we’d better learn to live with, rather than the aggregate of countless human decisions.” The same analysis would apply to expressions such as global warming, plastic pollution, oil spills or species extinction. By making the consequences of our behaviour into nouns, Burkeman contends, we give them “magical powers independent of humans”, a process that “let’s us get away with lazy explanations.”
So we use the linguistic mechanism of nounism to separate our behaviour from its consequences, shifting responsibility for our environmental affronts to something other than ourselves, and converting our indifference or negligence into something over which we seem to have no control — just as we are powerless to change a “dog” into a “cat.” Language is not only arbitrary, it is a device we can use to avoid responsibility for our actions. The nouns we invent come between reality and the consequences of our behaviour. An “accident” somehow shifts blame for a pipeline oil spill away from the ecological damage caused by a series of engineering oversights, bad design, inadequate inspection, outdated infrastructure and cost-cutting for maximum profits. The nouns don’t capture the suffering of oil-soaked birds, the agony of dying fish, the slow death of poisoned plants, the heartbreak of displaced people. Like any “ism”, nounism is a construct of thought. It is also a linguistic device used to insulate ourselves from reality. The full extent of the damage we are causing is softened by the nouns we use to identify this damage.