How we’re sounding stupid today: deadjectival nouns

transcendence and immanece
Transcendence and immanence as descriptions of the relationship between God and reality. Picture source:

I was feeling good the other day.  Chatting up a pretty French girl, showing off my (lack of) familiarity with 20th-century French philosophers, and using lots of great abstract nouns–transcendence, immanence, agency, objectivity.  Feeling smart, feeling charming, feeling sparkling.  Pride comes before a fall, and my fall came hard: Oh, Kevin–your neologisms are so cute.  The way that you make up new words! 

Shit–Not what I was going for.  My mistake: throwing around deadjectival nouns too freely.  Overgeneralizing from limited data.  The Fallacy of Small N.  Bref, as we say in French: I was making nouns from adjectives–transcendence from transcendent, objectivity from objective–but I was using the wrong word endings to do it, trying to generalize from too few examples (overgeneralizing from limited data), extracting a pattern that seemed to have held a few times (the Fallacy of Small N).

You can see from my very small set of examples that English has pretty good facilities for making nouns from adjectives.  We call these deadjectival nouns.  Start with the adjective objective, add -ity, and you’ve got a noun.  Start with the adjective transcendent, add -ce, and you’ve got transcendence.  You can see something else from my example, too: you don’t get to add just any ol’ word ending to the adjective.  Transcendity?  Not OK.  Objectiveness?  It’s OK, but it means something different from objectivity.  French also has pretty good facilities for making nouns from adjectives.  And, in French, as in English, you don’t get to add just any ol’ word ending to the adjective–you have to know, for any given adjective-noun pair, what the right word ending is.  Let’s look at some examples, including of course some that are more or less randomly chosen from recent things I’ve said that have made people snicker, plus an encounter with the always-hilarious old lady who owns a bookstore near my apartment, and then some more thrown in just to show the diversity of possibilities.  I’ve relied heavily on to make this table; if I indicate an English word as NFE, I mean to communicate that there is No French Equivalent, at least according to WordReference.

Adjective Possible noun Impossible or other nouns
radin stingy la radinerie stinginess
câlin cuddly, affectionate les câlineries cuddles (plural only, as far as I can tell) affection affection

NFE affectionateness

malin smart, clever intelligence, astuce cleverness (intelligence); ingéniosité, habilité cleverness (ingenuity) malinerie doesn’t exist (thought we had a pattern going there, didn’t you?  I sure did!)
complice complicit (involved in) la complicité complicity (which I’ve only ever heard in a positive sense, meaning something like closeness, bondedness) NFE complicitness
banal common, banal, mundane
la banalité banality
abrasif abrasive
abrasivité abrasiveness (I think–can a native speaker help?)
impécunieux impécuniosité
sûr sûreté
las weary la lassitude weariness
ingrat ungrateful; unattractive; unrewarding l’ingratitude ingratitude, ungracefulness
transcendent, transcendental transcendent la transcendance transcendence
immanent immanent immanence immanence
obéissant obedient obéissance obedience

Things to note:

  • There is a pretty tight requirement for specific endings to be added to specific adjectives.
  • There is quite a bit of phonology (technically, morphophonology) going on with some of these endings–for example, abrasif   (with an f) versus abrasivité (with a v); impécunieux (with no consonant pronounced at the end of the adjective) versus impécuniosité (with an s, which of course is pronounced as a z).   
  • As far as I can tell, there’s no simple mapping between the ending in English and the ending in French (or vice versa).  English -ity might match to French -ité (e.g. English banality, French banalité), but then again, so might -ness (e.g. English impecuniousness, French impécuniosité).  Of course, English -ness might map to something else, too (e.g. English stinginess, French radinerie). And, forget remembering how to spell any of this–I can’t spell either language anymore…  Make me read and write in Spanish for a week, and I won’t be able to do any of the three…
  • Is there an easy way to predict, or at least to group together for memorization, any of this?  I haven’t found one yet–suggestions appreciated…
man is nothing else but 7644721
Transcendence versus immanence becomes a major issue in the philosophy of feminism via Simone de Beauvoir: existentialism, to which she adhered, posits that we are not born what we are, but rather become it.  This becomes a problem if you live in a cultural framework that posits that men transcend–go beyond what they are, change–but women remain immanent.  She works through this in “The second sex.”  Picture source:

To put all of this in a bigger picture: what we’re looking at here–things that can change the part of speech of other words–are what is known as derivational morphemes.  The whole phenomenon of derivational morphology has some pretty interesting implications for the nature of human language.  You can read more about derivational morphology, and those implications, at this blog post.  In fact, we’ve recently been talking about a very particular kind of morphological derivation–zero derivation, or changing part of speech without adding an affix, as in this recent post that discusses why that particular phenomenon is interesting, and then this recent post that explores at some depth the range of zero-derived verbs that come from nouns that refer to parts of the mouth and that refer to some form of communication.

English notes:

Not everyone would agree that some of the English nouns that I have in the third column are OK–particularly, affectionateness and complicitness. 


8 thoughts on “How we’re sounding stupid today: deadjectival nouns”

  1. One point about the meaning of ‘abrasif’ in French as compared to abrasive in English. The French only seem to use this word to describe the mechanical sense of scraping rather than a personality or character trait. But instead of using ‘abrasif’ to describe a cleaning product, for example, they use words based on the verb ‘récurer’ (récurant, récurage…). Interesting post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s one at least : causticité . Caustique belongs to the same wave as abrasif . But while abrasif is always physical, as Mel said, caustique is more often psychological, if we except “la soude caustique” (caustic soda) . Meeting someone “caustique” makes you feel like rubbed with an abrasive substance .

      Liked by 2 people

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