Nouns vs. Adjectives

Reading this piece on the Atlantic about negativity (bad reviews, say, or hate speech) garnering higher ratings in Google searches, I was reminded of a reflexive discomfort that I have for group names as nouns. The article talked about the difference between “Jewish people”  and “Jews”. The noun–“Jews” is more likely to be used on anti-semitic websites, whereas actual Jewish people say, well, “Jewish people”. 

This has long bugged me for no great reason: I react with revulsion when I hear about what “the Japanese” think, but read right past mentions of “Japanese people”. I’ve never quite been able to pin down my problem precisely, except that the noun form sounds like a pejorative, whereas the adjective is simply an adjective. Of course, one could very easily say “All Japanese people are racist,” and one would be racist one’s self, and another could easily say “Japanese have a tendency to have fewer children per couple than most other people,” which is a simple and factual observation. Something about the connotations of the noun just grate on me.

I have no larger point here–it’s just neat that google appears to back me up: at least with regard to Judaism, anti-semites are statistically more likely to use the noun then others. Hooray for statistical evidence supporting my otherwise weird reactions to word choice?

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6 thoughts on “Nouns vs. Adjectives

  1. I think there may be some linguistic research to back this up, too, though this is mostly a guess based on very little knowledge of that area…. I think I have a similar aversion. Here’s my initial guess: it’s because when you says “the Jews” or “ze Germans” it connotes an “us” and “them” aura. Whereas when you say “the Jewish people” or “the blacks community” it connotes an idea that they’re just another group of people, like you or me. Does that make sense to anyone or is that total nonsense?

  2. Yeah, that’s just it! Your point sounds every bit as totally nonsensical as my post–which is to say there’s this subtle, connotative understanding, that we feel, even if we can’t quite define.

    Yeah, the business about “the French” in the circa 2003 period sounds a lot like that too, come to think of it. How did this trope get started, I wonder? Do we know any historical linguist types?

  3. The distinction between adjectives and nouns also speaks to whether or not we are saying people ARE something intrinsically versus it being part of what makes up a far more complicated identity (which is a dirty word, but you know what I mean). Those working in disability studies have worked hard for the shift to “persons with disabilities” instead of “the disabled” as a way of not labeling someone based on one part of their makeup. When making a brochure for International students during my Master’s we discussed the distinction between “Internationals” (which has the same perjorative ring Devin was discussing) and “International Students.” I always bristle when people refer to “the gays.”

  4. Yes, that’s it I think: “The distinction between adjectives and nouns also speaks to whether or not we are saying people ARE something intrinsically versus it being part of what makes up a far more complicated identity”. That’s why I sense an awkward moment when someone says, “the blacks” or “the gays.”

  5. I realized yesterday while thinking about this that this is at the heart of my discomfort with the label of “slaves” in US history (or even other time periods I suppose). I by no means to take credit for this idea, but such labeling (again in J. Brenden’s words) labels individuals and limits what they are. And I don’t think it’s just a notion of semantics in case someone is wondering about that angle.

  6. I think most of us would find this interview with Eugene Robinson on Fresh Air interesting: http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13&prgDate=12-1-2010

    He discusses his book dealing with how he views black America today, but addresses some of the feedback he’s received since Obama’s election which contains a lot of “you people” type racism (among other types). The pertinent section to this post is near the end (last five minutes of 20), but the other parts are pretty good, too (though he gives quite a positive spin on Booker T. Washington and the northern philanthropist who are credited with building the school he went to when he was younger).

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