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Nominal (linguistics)

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Nominal (linguistics)

In linguistics, the term nominal refers to a category used to group together nouns and adjectives based on shared properties. The motivation for nominal grouping is that in many languages nouns and adjectives share a number of morphological and syntactic properties. The systems used in such languages to show agreement can be classified broadly as gender systems, noun class systems or case marking, classifier systems, and mixed systems.[1] Typically an affix related to the noun appears attached to the other parts of speech within a sentence to create agreement. Such morphological agreement usually occurs in parts within the noun phrase, such as determiners and adjectives. Languages with overt nominal agreement vary in how and to what extent agreement is required.


  • History 1
    • Latinate grammar tradition 1.1
    • Bantuist grammar tradition 1.2
  • Theory of word-classes 2
    • Chomsky's analysis 2.1
  • Cross-linguistic evidence 3
    • Slavic languages 3.1
    • Semantic noun class 1–5 3.2
    • Declensional noun class 3.3
      • Morphological evidence: Russian 3.3.1
        • Number
    • Australian languages 3.4
      • Morphological evidence: Australian 3.4.1
    • Bantu languages 3.5


The history of research on nominals dates back to European studies on Latin and Bantu in which agreement between nouns and adjectives according to the class of the noun can be seen overtly.

Latinate grammar tradition

Within the study of European languages, recognition of the nominal grouping is reflected in traditional grammar studies based on Latin, which has a highly productive marking system. Nominals can be seen in the shared morphemes that attach to the ends of nouns and adjectives and agree in case and gender. In the example below, 'son' and 'good' agree in nominative case because they are the subject of the sentence and at the same time they agree in gender because the ending is masculine. Likewise, 'the dog' and 'wild' share the same morphemes that show they agree in accusative case and masculine gender. In Latin agreement goes beyond nouns and adjectives. For full paradigms of Latin agreement see Latin declension.

Explanation- The good son loves the wild dog.
Latin: fīlius bonus amat(1) canem(2) (acc) ferocem(3) (acc).
English: [The] son good [he] loves [the] dog wild.

Bantuist grammar tradition

The earliest study of noun classes was conducted in 1659 on Bantu languages, [2] and this study has to this day undergone only very minor modifications. These alterations began with Wilhelm Bleek's Ancient Bantu which led to Proto-Bantu .[2] The following example is from the Bantu Language Ganda. For nominal classes in Bantu, see below.

(1) mú-límí mú-néné
1-farmer 1-fat

Theory of word-classes

Although much of the research on nominals focuses on their morphological and semantic properties, syntactically nominals can be considered a "super category" which subsumes noun heads and adjective heads. This explains why languages that take overt agreement features have agreement in adjectives and nouns.

Chomsky's analysis

In Chomsky's 1970 [±V, ±N] analysis, words with the feature "plus noun" that are not verbs "minus verb", are predicted to be nouns, while words with the feature "plus verb" and "minus noun" would be verbs. Following from this, when a word has both characteristics of nouns and verbs we get adjectives. When a word lacks either feature, one logically gets prepositions.[3]

A cross table of features at the lexical level
+V –V
+N Adjectives Nouns
–N Verbs Prepositions

The following tree demonstrates that the category [+N] groups together nouns and adjectives.

The super category nominals

This suggests English illiustrates characteristics of nominals at a syntactic level because nouns and adjectives take the same complements at the head level. Likewise, verbs and prepositions take the same kinds of complements at the head level. This parallel distribution is predicted by the feature distribution of lexical items.

The compliments taken by the phrases seen in parallel distribution

Cross-linguistic evidence

Slavic languages

In Russian, the nominal category contains nouns, pronouns, adjectives and numerals. These categories share features of case, gender, and number each of which are inflected with different suffixes. Nominals are seen as secondary inflection of agreement. Understanding the different noun classes and how they relate to gender and number is important because the agreement of adjectives will change depending on the type of noun. [4]

Example of nominal predicate:

'The girl is very beautiful' Девушка очень красив-а

Semantic noun class 1–5

Although there is not complete agreement about the categorization of noun classes in Russian, a common view breaks the noun classes up into five categories or classes, each of which gets different affixes depending on gender, case and number.

Noun class 1 refers to mass nouns, collective nouns, and abstract nouns.

examples: вода 'water', любовь 'love'

Noun class 2 refers to items with which the eye can focus on and must be non-active

examples: дом 'house', школа 'school'

Noun class 3 refers to non-humans that are active.

examples: рыба 'fish', чайка 'seagull'

Noun Class 4 refers to human beings that are not female.

examples: отец 'father, 'один' man

Noun Class 5 refers to human beings that are female.

examples: женщина "woman", мать 'mother'

Declensional noun class

Declensional class refers to the form rather than semantics.

Declinational class 1 Declinational class 2 Indeclinational
Noun ending in -C Noun ending in -a Other
Masculine Female Neuter

Morphological evidence: Russian

Nouns and adjectives inflect for case and gender.

In Russian, nominals occur when:

  • Adjectives and non-personal pronouns take the same agreement as their referent
  • Personal pronouns agree with the natural gender of the referent


Gender and class

Russian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Gender and class are closely related in that the noun class will reflect the gender marking a nominal will get. Reflecting gender in Russian is usually restricted to the singular with a few exceptions in the plural. Gender is reflected on both the noun and the adjective or pronoun. Gendered nominals are clearly reflected in anaphors and relative pronouns because even if there is no explicit inflection upon the nouns they inherit animacy, gender and number from their antecedent.[4]

Affixes identifying one gender

Number/Case Affix Gender
SG/NOM ACC -o Neuter
SG INST -ju Fem
SG GEN -u Masc
SG LOC ú Masc
SG LOC í Fem
PL NOM 'e Masc

Affixes linked with two genders

Number/Case Affix Gender
SG/NOM ACC Masc, Fem
SG NOM -a Masc, Fem
SG ACC -u Masc, Fem
SG INT -oj Masc, Fem
SG GEN -a Masc, Neut
SG DAT -u Masc, Neut
SG INST -om Masc, Neut
PL NOM/ACC -a Masc, Neut

Russian has two numbers: singular and plural. Number is inherent to the noun so it is reflected by inflection on the noun and the agreeing nominals such as attributive adjectives, predicates and relative pronouns. There is only alteration of singular and plural between semantic classes 2–5 because class 1 does not distinguish between one or more than one.[4]


Adjectives agree with gender, case and number markings and consequently agree with the noun class.

Short form basic inflectional pattern

Masc Neut Fem PL
-o -a -i

Australian languages

Nominals are a common feature of Indigenous Australian languages, many of which do not categorically differentiate nouns from adjectives.

Some features of nominals in some Australian languages include:

Morphological evidence: Australian

  • Mayali has four major noun class prefixes which attach to items within the nominal phrase: masculine, feminine, vegetable, and neuter.
An example paradigm is given below, adapted from .[6] One can see that each of the nominal morphemes in each class attaches to both the nouns and the adjectives.
Type Noun Adjective English
masculine na-rangem na-kimuk 'big boy'
feminine ngal-kohbanj ngal-kimuk 'big old-woman'
vegetable man-mim man-kimuk 'big seed'
neuter kun-warde kun-kimuk 'big rock'

Bantu languages

Nominal structures are also found in Bantu languages. These languages constitute a sub-set of the Niger-Congo languages in Africa. There are approximately 250 different varieties of Bantu. Within these languages, nouns have historically been classified into certain groups

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