Gifting

Gifting? she said. She hated gifting. Not the action, the verb. She loved when someone gave her a gift, she said, just don’t call it gifting. I said OK and didn’t give her a gift. She laughed. It was a better idea anyway, as she was pretty and young and I am married and not young. Look but don’t gift.

But man, you want to piss some people off, just verb a noun, like gifting. People can get furious about verbed nouns. Which is a little weird, as so many of today’s verbs were originally nouns. And a great many nouns were verbs. In fact, the word gift seems to be a Norse addition to English, and derives from the Old Norwegian (and Old German) gibt, which means, umm, give. (The New German is Geschenck, as in the lovely Weihnachtsgeschenk, or Christmas gift.) So the Old English nouned a perfectly good verb. I’m sure people complained. Just as they complain when it reverts back to being a verb, but language is alive and ever changing, and these things happen.

Think of it this  way…all the first words were nouns. You have to have a word for a thing. But as with sign language, verbs can be construed by gestures. So when verbs developed, they weren’t just coined anew (to verb another noun, sorry). The noun itself began to become a verb. Then, once verbed, the new verb could then be used with other nouns. So all verbs (and all adjectives too, I think, though that would be another essay) would have begun as a noun (or as part of a noun, though that gets complicated, so we’ll just say nouns). A noun is about as basic a bit of information the brain can store. The brain breaks down words into modifying bits, prefixes like de- and un-, or suffixes like -ness, but those are not matched to actual objects. But a noun the brain matches to a mental picture. When you say apple you see a mind’s eye image of an apple. So a noun is essentially just a label that the brain began using once language was invented.

But a verb, on the other hand, is mentally a real conceptual leap (to noun another verb). Since language began as words representing actual things, the language part of the brain has to see an action as a thing, like a noun, in order to perceive it. It can only think like that. It is hardwired as little more than a process to give verbalized sounds to represent things. Our language center can’t actually process actions. In fact, the parts of the brain that do perceive motion or action are non-verbal. There’s no language there at all. This is a part of the brain that goes back to the very origin of thinking itself. For a billion years organisms existed that could respond to movement with no need for language at all, while the need to describe things as nouns is only a couple hundred thousand years old, or, if we go into human proto-language, maybe a couple million years, at most (incidentally, vervet monkeys have a specific alarm calls denoting eagle, leopard and python, each of which implies hunting). Being able to process movement is essential for survival, but being able to use sounds to name an object is just handy if you have the brain large enough to do so. And because of the evolutionary history, our verbal processing–language–is built upon a structure of completely language free processing. The vast majority of what we call thinking involves no language at all.

When you see an apple your brain says apple, but when you see an apple falling your brain doesn’t say falling, it says apple falling. Falling is a gerund, a verb turned into a noun. We use the gerund because there is no way our brain can conceptualize falling without turning it into a thing, a concept, something we can label. The part of the brain that sees the apple falling doesn’t go through the language center at all. The vision center is all pre-language. You look up and see an anvil being dropped off a building onto your head and you will jump before the language part of your brain says dude, an anvil. Try it yourself. Though I don’t know if they make anvils anymore, or even drop them.

So the language center in your head will automatically associate an action with a noun. It does this because the brain began inventing language as a cataloguing of things, objects. (Incidentally, written language began the same way, in symbols representing objects.) The language center thinks in terms of things. It associates an action with a noun, because it cannot conceptualize in language a pure action. It needs a thing, a noun to be acted upon. So every verb there is in a language is associated with a noun. That is automatically. There are no languages that do not do this. All languages are some variation of subject-verb-object (SVO). He threw the ball. You have VSO languages. Threw he the ball. SOV languages. He the ball threw. VSO languages. Threw he the ball. Even a very few OVS. The ball threw he. You do not have any languages with just a V with no S or O. No verb without a subject or object. I’m not even sure if the brain can visualize an action without a subject (an intransitive verb) or without a subject and an object (a transitive verb). It recognizes it–remember the falling anvil–but the voice in your head does not announce Falling! It says Falling anvil! There is always a noun associated with an action.

So whatever action is performed with that noun (such as throwing that damn ball) will automatically make itself available, in your brain’s language center, as an action using the noun itself–the object, grammatically–as a verb. It’s not just throwing…the brain says somebody is throwing, or somebody is throwing something. Therefore, any noun upon which an action is performed can be converted into a verb itself. So the SVO–subject verb object–in I gave her the gift can be turned into I gifted her, melding the verb and object into a verb. This is a built in language process…the brain does it automatically. It is part of the very process of language formation itself, going all the way back in the simplest imaginable form to homo erectus, if not earlier. Speech wasn’t even necessary. Just a sound representing a thing, and gesture representing what will be done with that thing. Later, in homo sapiens, like you and me and that chick I didn’t give a gift to, words developed, and then actual speech. So people can bitch all they want about this obnoxious turning of nouns into verbs, but to no avail, because it is not only hardwired, it is built into our very genetic code, pre-dating words themselves. Verbing nouns and nouning verbs is one of the things that makes us human. It’s part of that tiny percentage of DNA that we don’t share with gorillas. Well, that and huge testicles, or some of us, anyway.

(There’s a longer draft revision of this, but it needs some work, so I just posted the original here until I grind out the complexities of that piece. Stuff like this is real brain hurting stuff, yow.) 

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