Word in Language (1): Countable and Uncountable Nouns

The basic unit of language is a noun. Nouns refer to people or things – nurse, firefighter, book, table. They may also be concepts, things that we cannot visualize, but that affect our behaviour – right, wrong, inflation, jealousy.


This difference between nouns referring to people and things that we can see and nouns referring to concepts we can only attempt to describe is very important. When it’s someone or something that I can point out and say, ‘That is a nurse,’ or, ‘That is a book,’ then the noun is preceded by the indefinite article a or an – a nurse, a book. This is because the person or thing exists in the world around me, I can draw the noun or indicate it with my finger, it is in front of me. When it’s a concept, we have no way of pointing it out, of saying, ‘There it is!’ And for that reason what each of us understands by the concept may be different. Concepts are not preceded by the indefinite article, unless we are talking about a specific example. Right and wrong are concepts. A right or a wrong would be a specific example that was done to me on a particular occasion (in a way, I am beginning to visualize the concept and to point it out, which is why I use the article).


I am interested here in nouns that we can visualize – people and things – because the fact that I can visualize the noun, I can see it with my own two eyes, means it is somehow separate from me, or at least I consider it to be somehow separate. If I refer to a book, for example, it is a book on the shelf or a book on the table. I am standing in the room and pointing to it. I may even pick it up. But I can put it down again and walk away. So it is separate.


We might say that I can draw a line around it. Let us look at the example of light. Light as a concept is uncircumscribable, I cannot draw a line around it. In a sense, it can contain me, but I cannot contain it. But if I talk about a light (with the indefinite article before it), then I have contained light in a bulb or a torch, for example. The expression ‘Give me a light’ refers to a single light emanating from a matchstick, not the concept of light – I am not asking you to illuminate my world, just to provide me with an example of fire that will burn out eventually.


This difference between light as a concept and an example of light (a bulb, a torch, a matchstick) is the difference between an uncountable noun (the concept) and a countable noun (an example of that concept). Countable nouns can have a line drawn around them, they can be made separate from ourselves, they have a beginning and an end. Uncountable nouns – the concept at least – are eternal.


But let us turn our vision to ourselves. We are countable nouns. We come into existence. We are born of our mothers – a bundle of flesh that emerges from the womb. You can draw a line around this and say, ‘That is a child.’ Countable nouns, by definition, can be counted. We can count the children in a family or in a class. Each child sits on a chair at a desk. The chairs and desks can also be counted. They can be separated one from another, or piled into a stack.


I would like to suggest that this is what God did in creation – he created separate beings, Adam and Eve, separate creatures, trees and plants, each one of which was an example of that particular species. He created countable nouns, nouns that could have a line drawn around them, as in a child’s drawing. A man, a woman, an oak, a leopard… a word (because he created the world by speaking). All separated off from himself, endowed with its own specific qualities and characteristics. We ourselves imitate this process – when we speak, we emit words, separate beings that once spoken cannot be retrieved.


And he endowed us with free will. In fact, I would go so far as to say he created separate beings, countable nouns, precisely with that purpose, so that they would have free will, because if a human or a rabbit was part of him, it would not be able to function independently (within the limits of its species) and so would resemble a machine.


So, in the case of God, I would say this separation into countable nouns had a noble purpose, a purpose which he has given us to proceed (we create our own children, animals produce their own offspring, trees produce seeds).


If I could just refer to language, the name of God that he reveals to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 is I AM WHO I AM, which we can shorten to I AM, or simply AM. One of the seven phonetic pairs – pairs of consonants that are pronounced in the same part of the mouth – is m-n. If we apply this pair to AM, we get AN, the indefinite article, and together they give A MAN. This is just a coincidence.


So man (I am talking about the concept here, not a particular individual) has been given the ability to create separate beings, just as God did. We can create a child, a light. We can build a house. We can write a book. But what we cannot do is create a concept. We cannot create a new species (we can create hybrids). And we cannot create light.


That is, we can use the ingredients, the things that are already provided for us, and transform them into something else, but we cannot provide the ingredients. Put simply, this means that we are translators – we take what is given to us and we transform it into something else. We are not authors.


And if we are not authors, because nothing begins with us, nothing proceeds from us, things pass through us, then this means that the concept of ownership is flawed. Things do not belong to us. Or rather only our response to them does, the way we choose to use them, and this is what constitutes our free will.


I think this difference between countable and uncountable nouns is very important because at one point I would like not to have a beginning and an end, I would like to be immortal, but to do that I must participate in a concept – God – that is uncountable, who is capable of creating new ingredients. I cannot do this on my own. I cannot make myself uncountable. Only God can do this by allowing us to participate in his energies.


And secondly it is our claim to ownership that gives rise to the system of capitalism, whereby we take the products that have been (freely) given to us and package them in order to sell them at a cost. This turning concepts such as flour or oil, metal or wood, into something sellable involves making them countable (otherwise how can I transport them, and how can I charge you for them?). So I create a bag of flour, a barrel of oil, a car or a table. I use the concepts that were put there by God, I transform them (because this is my purpose: to translate), but then I sell them, and as soon as I sell them, I must draw a line around them in the form of packaging. It is the waste product of this process that causes our environment so many problems. It is, in effect, the waste product of our own definition.


When we treat the other as a source of profit, we have distorted God’s purpose. God gave us the other, a separate being, as a source of joy, to learn how to love (not to learn economics).


One final word connection. The Greek word for ‘God’ is THEOS. We saw in the previous article on the Coronavirus that LOVE is connected to OTHER. If we take a step in the alphabet, r-s, we will see that OTHER is connected to THEOS. So the other is God. When we see them as part of ourselves, we participate in them, the dividing lines are broken down and we become separate, but also one.


Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com