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Semantic properties of nouns

The prototypical meaning and use of nouns is to refer to all kinds of things – objects, people, phenomena, and so forth (Van Rooy 2017:256). In example (1), nouns are used to refer to a number of different things: Michelangelo is a proper noun, used to refer to a specific person, and Rennaisance is another proper noun, used to refer to a specific period in time; kunstenaar artist refers to a person, beeld image / sculpture refers to a concrete object, marmer marble to a substance, and gawe gift and plig duty to abstract concepts. Nouns are sometimes used for other functions than reference, such as descriptive uses and vocatives.

Michelangelo, die Italiaanse beeldhouer uit die Rennaissance, wat geglo het dat die beeld reeds in die marmer vasgevang is en dat dit die kunstenaar se gawe en plig is om dit raak te sien.
Michelangelo the Italian sculptor out the Renaissance that.REL believe.PST have.AUX that.COMP the image already in the marble captive be.PRS and that.COMP it the artist PTCL.GEN gift and duty be.PRS for.COMP it spot PTCL.INF see.INF
Michelangelo, the Italian sculptor from the Rennaisance, who believed that the sculpture is already inside the marble and that it is the artist's gift and duty to spot it.

The primary semantic function of nouns is to make reference to things (Ponelis 1979:15). The nouns in (2a) are all used referentially. However, nouns are occasionally also used in other functions. Nouns and NPs can be used as descriptors (Ponelis 1979:19), as in (2b-2d). In (2b), the NP'n maand van opwinding a month of excitement does not refer to a particular month, it is a description of the subject of the sentence in a copula construction. Similarly, in (2c) the NPdie ideale bygereg vir enige ete the ideal side dish for any meal is used descriptively and the same for the NPdie Beste van alle Voorsieners the Best of all Providers in (2d). Another use of nouns, and especially proper nouns and forms of address, is the vocative (Ponelis 1979:19). In vocative uses, the noun does not identify a referent as is usually the case, rather it is used for functions such as drawing the attention of the addressee (2e), or showing politeness or respect (2f-2g). Further discussion of vocatives can be found in Vocative function and Nouns (used as pronouns) of address.

a. 'n Plant gebruik sonligenergie, water en koolstofdioksied gedurende fotosintese en maak voedsel (suikers) en suurstof.
a plant use sunlight.energy water and carbon.dioxide during photosynthesis and make food (sugars) and oxygen
A plant uses sunlight energy, water and carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to produce food (sugars) and oxygen.
b. Oktober is 'n maand van opwinding.
October be.PRS a month of excitement
October is a month of excitement.
c. Knoffelbrood is die ideale bygereg vir enige ete.
garlic.bread be.PRS the ideal side.dish for any meal
Garlic bread is the ideal side dish for any meal.
d. Onthou, Allah is die Beste van alle Voorsieners.
remember Allah be.PRS the Best of all Providers
Remember, Allah is the Best of all Providers.
e. Liewe meneer Thabo, tree tog nou af, asseblief.
dear mister Thabo retire but now PREP.PTCL please
Dear mister Thabo, please retire now.
f. Môre, Antie. My ma leen 'n bietjie sout vir die pap.
morning Aunty my mother borrow a bit salt for the porridge
Good morning, Aunty. My mother is borrowing a bit of salt for the porridge.
g. Is u ernstig, Dokter?
be.PRS you.HON serious Doctor
Are you serious, Doctor?

Nouns have further properties, such as definiteness and specific or generic uses. Proper nouns are inherently definite, but other nouns can generally be used definitely and indefinitely (Ponelis 1979:16). In (3a), selfoon cellphone is indefinite, as indicated by the indefinite article 'n a(n), and in (3d) the plural selfone cellphones is indefinite as it is not accompanied by a definite article or another definite determiner. In (3b), (3c) and (3e), the nouns are definite, as indicated by the definite article die the. In terms of specific or generic uses, nouns are typically used with specific reference, as in (3b), (3c) and (3d). When used generically, it refers not to one specific or a particular group of entities, but rather a whole class (Ponelis 1979:19). In (3a), reference to 'n selfoon a cellphone indicates any cellphone, as in any member of the class. Similarly, in (3e) die selfoon the cellphone refers to the entire class of objects, describing it as a wonderful thing.

a. 'n Selfoon op jou lessenaar kan jou aandag aftrek, selfs al is dit af.
a cellphone on your.SG desk can your.SG attention away.draw even though be.PRS it off
A cellphone on your desk kan distract you, even if it is switched off.
b. Om 03:31 bliep die selfoon weer.
at 03:31 bleep the cellphone again
At 03:31 the cellphone bleeps again.
VivA-KPO, adapted
c. Ramphele skuif haar bril sodat dit mooi netjies onder die selfone lê.
Ramphele move her glasses so.that it beautifully neatly under the cellphones lay
Ramphele moves her glasses so that it lies nice and neatly underneath the cellphones.
d. Om my is selfone in die lug.
around me be.PRS cellphones in the air
Around me there are cellphones in the air.
VivA-KPO, adapted
e. Die selfoon is 'n wonderlike ding.
the cellphone be.PRS a wonderful thing
The cellphone is a wonderful thing.

A special class of nouns not discussed here is pronouns. Pronouns share many properties with regular nouns, but also have very specific uses and functions. For more information about pronouns, follow this link: Pronouns.

  • Ponelis, Frits A1979Afrikaanse sintaksisPretoriaJ.L. van Schaik
  • Ponelis, Frits A1979Afrikaanse sintaksisPretoriaJ.L. van Schaik
  • Ponelis, Frits A1979Afrikaanse sintaksisPretoriaJ.L. van Schaik
  • Ponelis, Frits A1979Afrikaanse sintaksisPretoriaJ.L. van Schaik
  • Ponelis, Frits A1979Afrikaanse sintaksisPretoriaJ.L. van Schaik
  • Van Rooy, B2017Kontemporêre Afrikaanse taalkunde [Contemporary Afrikaans linguistics]Carstens, W.A.M. & Bosman, N. (ed.)Afrikaanse sintaksis, funksioneel benader [Afrikaans syntax, functionally approached]Van Schaik Uitgewers251-297
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