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Parts of speech

The vocabulary of a language is divided by grammarians into a number of word classes, or parts of speech, according to their syntactic, semantic and morphological behaviour. All languages seem to have verb and noun categories, while differing widely with respect to adjectives and other parts of speech. This cross-linguistic variety is well-known, but it may be more unexpected to learn that languages for specific purposes differ considerably in the extent to which they make use of different parts of speech. All languages for specific purposes are heavily biased towards nouns, but the proportion of technical terms that are verbs varies widely. As can be seen in Table 17.2, this figure ranges from an insignificant 0.2% in chemistry to 7.1% in economics and 8.8% in business.

The reason for this startling difference has to be sought in the subject matter of the disciplines. Economists try to explain human behaviour in the economic sphere. Such behaviour manifests itself in a great variety of actions which, in the most straightforward form, are expressed as verbs in English (and other languages). The following sample culled from the business list may serve as an illustration: acquire, advertise, bid, borrow, buy, compete, deregulate, devalue, diversify, do business, earn, empower, expatriate, go out of business, hedge, innovate, invest, lay off, lease back, lend, license, loan, make money, manage, manufacture, market. In complete contrast, chemistry has to name a myriad of substances and compounds, while the actions, processes and relations that lend themselves to expression as verbs seem to be few in number (e.g., bind, burn, evaporate, form, liquefy, mix, react, sublime). In comparison with the bustling marketplace, life at the molecular level and in the laboratory seems to be rather monotonous. The number of verbs is also relatively low in linguistics and medicine, with physics being located somewhere in the middle.

Table 17.2: Parts of speech in chosen disciplines (English)

Economics

Business

Medicine

Linguistics

Chemistry

Physics

Noun

85.6%

86.0%

90.8%

88.2%

95.9%

90.8%

Adjective

7.1%

4.8%

6.4%

10.5%

4.0%

3.7%

Verb

7.1%

8.8%

1.2%

0.4%

0.2%

5.0%

Adverb

0.2%

0.4%

0.6%

0.8%

0.0%

0.5%

Symbol

0.0%

0.0%

1.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

 
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