Nouns and Greek texts
Looking back at elementary school, the earliest thing I remember learning was what a noun was. “A person, place, or thing” – that seems to cover all the bases. It’s the type of knowledge that quickly becomes secondhand, only coming to mind in cases like interpreting a sentence that contains a gerund, which is an English nouns that seem like a verb (e.g., “the happening is up ahead”).
Sixteen years after I learned what a noun was, I started reading Aristotle in Greek. Although Aristotle exerts tremendous influence on all of Western civilization – in every field from biology (which he started with his examinations of specimens brought to him by Alexander the Great) to theater criticism – I have never loved his ideas or stylistic flourishes as much as those of his teacher, Plato.
Some of his Greek texts seemed rough to me, requiring a lot of insertion of English words in the translation, whereas Plato’s writing was full of plays on words and syntactical arrangements that made it enjoyable in ways that English couldn’t reproduce. When translating, I felt like sometimes English was an upgrade for Aristotle, while it never was for Plato.
Nouns and sounds: Nounds?
I began reading Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” today, my first real brush with his work since 2007, when I was working with the “Nichomachean Ethics.” It won’t take me too long to finish, which is exciting, having recently read almost nothing but long philosophical tracts and novels.
Early on, Aristotle, like an elementary school teacher, sets the grounds rules by defining what he means by a noun. He says:
“By a noun we mean a sound significant by convention, which has no reference to time, and of which no part is significant apart from the rest.”
I don’t have the Greek text with me (I’ll try to find an image of it later) but isn’t it strange that a noun is defined as a sound? Obviously, nouns are also written, soundlessly, on paper and word processors, but, as Aristotle notes, “written words are the symbols of spoken words.” It all comes back to speech.
Sounds and good and bad writing
This makes sense when you start to think about bad writing, more so than good writing. So much bad writing and so many bad ideas emerge because they have no predecessors in speech and would sound close to nonsense if spoken aloud. I’m thinking of all that business writing about “full-service solutions providers.” Jason Fried tore into it several years ago for Inc.:
“One of my favorite phrases in the business world is full-service solutions provider. A quick search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using that one. That’s full-service generic. There’s more. Cost effective end-to-end solutions brings you about 95,000 results. Provider of value-added services nets you more than 600,000 matches. Exactly which services are sold as not adding value?.”
All of these phrases sound horrible in conversation – even the people who write them wouldn’t utter them aloud in relaxed company. It’s like there’s nothing there; encountering the word “solutions” in text makes me instantly skip like 2 or 3 lines ahead to see if things get better. There may as well be no nouns on the page.
Aristotle is helpful here, too, in a strange way:
“[N]othing is by nature a noun or name – it is only so when it becomes a symbol; inarticulate sounds, such as those which brutes produce, are significant, yet none of these constitutes a noun.”
It’s a weird image that comes to mind for me here, as I equate brutes raving inarticulately with business writers ranting about best-of-breed management structures in ghostwritten columns or ‘touching base’ in their emails. What counts as “inarticulate,” though? A liberal interpretation, I suspect, could capture so much that is bad and nebulous about writing, particularly writing about technology.
Some terms, like “the Internet,” have become so vast as to be meaningless without first trying to figure out what they’re not – what is the Internet not, when it comes to technology? As I noted a few posts ago, the term has come to bind together software, hardware, networks, and many other disparate technologies into a homogenous term.
If it’s not everything, then it’s trying to become so by incorporating every device possible, through the “Internet of Things.” Sensors, “analytics,” and, yep, valued-added services all pile into conversations about this term: All I know is that trying to write about “the Internet of Things” makes me sound like an inarticulate brute.