Nounism: Softening Reality

by Ray Grigg

Language, perhaps our most sophisticated communication system, is usually comprised of nouns and verbs, a convention that divides our experience of reality into things and actions — into objects and processes. We have then elaborated this basic structure with nouns that are designated as singular, plural or possessive, with verbs of different tenses, with words or groups of words that modify nouns and verbs, and then with groups of words that function as nouns. We’ve even invented verbs that act as nouns.

This system we use for rendering reality into language is not only arbitrary, but our perception of reality is shaped by the particular structure of each language. Consequently, we can’t really trust language to inform us of what is actually real. If our language is divided into nouns and verbs, then that’s the reality we get.

Such is the larger framework for understanding a fascinating essay in which Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian Weekly, Aug. 7/15) introduces the notion of “nounism”. He explains that nounism is our inclination to make the abstract solid — we actually have an official word, reification, to describe this process. “Nouns”, Burkeman writes, “are the language of certainty, of things than can be grasped and dealt with.” In the process, however, nounism often distorts our perception of the world, “bestowing on certain things an added reality they don’t deserve.”

Burkeman suggests we consider “globalization” as an example. Nounism makes it seem “like a force we’d better learn to live with, rather than the aggregate of countless human decisions.” The same analysis would apply to expressions such as “global warming”, “plastic pollution”, “oil spills” or “species extinction”. By making the consequences of our behaviour into nouns, Burkeman contends, we give them “magical powers independent of humans”, a process that “lets us get away with lazy explanations”.

Nounism is a linguistic mechanism we use to separate our behaviour from the environmental consequences. It is a mechanism in language we use to convert our negligence into a thing over which we seem to have no control — just as we are powerless change a “dog” into a “cat”.

Language is not only arbitrary, it is also a device we use to avoid responsibility for our actions. The nouns we invent obscure the full environmental consequences of our behaviour. An “accident” or a “rupture” somehow shifts blame for a pipeline oil spill away from the ecological damage caused by a series of engineering oversights, bad design, inadequate inspection, outdated infrastructure and cost-cutting to maximize profits. The nouns don’t capture the suffering of oil-soaked birds, the agony of dying fish, the slow death of poisoned plants, the heartbreak of displaced people.

Like any “ism”, nounism is a construct of thought. It is also a linguistic device used to insulate ourselves from reality. War is far worse for those who experienced it than for those who use the word as a noun — a difference that explains why many veterans won’t talk about their war experiences. The same applies to the environmental state of our planet. The full extent of the actual damage we are causing is softened by the nouns we use to identify it.