Nouns as Contrasts: Opposites and Differences

There are many terms that draw contrasts between opposites and many terms which are used to distinguish degrees of difference between things which are alike.

The terms “light” and “dark”, or “hot” and “cold” refer to relative contrasts; whereas “dead” and “alive” refer to opposite and exclusive contrasts of states, or conditions. We also contrast between events by using the adjectival form of a noun, as when we refer to a piece of bread — unquestionably an object — as “stone-hard” or perhaps as “doughy”. In short, nouns are often adapted to serve as adjectives, as qualifiers.

“Dough” is an object-name; “doughy” a quality ascribed to dough. In its adjectival form the word establishes a link between certain accepted features of an object and some other event which does not carry the description implied by the adjective. One may not oneself know all the attributes of a stone — a task assigned to geologist — but there are conventions that apply at moments in our history which allow us to create a “list of attributes” deemed appropriate to the object being discussed. When one attributes a new quality to a familiar object, previous meanings of this “object “ become modified and extended. This is dramatically illustrated by contemporary dictionaries dedicated to slang!

Which come first, the noun or the adjective? I suspect nouns do: these are often names of objects and as such serve as primary signals. But whether names come first or not is not a matter of importance. It may be easier to teach some species that a sound signifies an action rather than an object; similarly some species may more likely learn to associate a sound with an object, or that there may be stages in development which favor the acquisition of an association of a signal with an object rather than with distinct actions which the subject is required to perform. Is there a general rule which applies to every species or are we talking about species-related matters, a la Ethologists? Pavlov and many others declared the former — but their assumption is not longer accepted as a general rule. Most modern biologists prefer the ethological position that species are quite limited in their perceptual and behavioral repertoire and that such limitations reflect much about their evolutionary history as a species.

What we need to be clear about is that our language from childhood onward distinguishes between names of objects — however such “objects” may be defined — and the likeness these objects have to each other — or to other features of our experience, features for which we already have forged names. Thus, “apples” are different from “oranges” and both are different from stones. The former two are edible (when ripe) whereas stones are never perceived as edible. Apple-seeds and orange-pips however are edible, although these could be mistaken as “small stones”! Each of us language-users learn which things are alike (or similar), to what degree this is so, and wherein lie the differences between them. It avoids confusion humans learn from an early age what “likeness” means and under what conditions one takes precautions against assuming that likeness is the same as equivalence. It is not always easy to do so.