The Designation of Humans: Transparency and Opacity

We designate humans with nouns or pronouns. In this paper, I focus on nouns, both simple and complex, and address the related issues of transparency and opacity.

My first aim is to show that nouns which designate humans tend to be more opaque than those which name other entities, and that transparent constructions may take on specific shades of meaning when applied to humans. For instance, the verb+noun pattern (pickpocket, passport) is derogatory only when it denotes humans. My hypothesis is that transparent designations do not readily designate people because reducing someone to one characteristic amounts to ignoring a human being's essential complexity.

I then compare nouns (in general) with other parts of speech, and, within the domain of word-formation, I observe a higher degree of opacity for the first set. My hypothesis is that nouns, more than other parts of speech, must be opaque, because, perhaps better than other parts of speech, they categorize. How, indeed, can a category be named? One cannot name an item after the prototype of the category it belongs to (as the prototype does not represent all members), or with a characteristic shared by all members of the category (as in most cases there isn't one). The only way is to resort to an arbitrary, and therefore opaque, sign.

One may therefore draw a parallel between the grammatical category of nouns and the designation of humans, in that they are both characterized by opacity. In fact, humans encapsulate at least one ingredient of categorization, i.e. opacity (people have an identity: they are more than the sum of their acts). One may therefore tentatively see humans as the conceptual basis for categorization.

Keywords: Transparency, opacity, arbitrariness, humans, nouns.


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