Sir Alan Gardiner sur Brassica rapa

11 janvier 2013



Sir Alan Gardiner
Fellow of the British Academy

Oxford University Press

First published 1940
Second edition 1954



I pass on to more dubious cases. An eminent French philologist has claimed that the names of birds which he personally is unable to identify on sight are in reality proper names. (1) As previously remarked (p. 30), personal ignorance of the meaning of a word—and this is a failing for which everyone ought to feel the greatest sympathy—can carry no weight in determining its categorization. To what category a word belongs is decided by the linguistic feeling of those best acquainted with the object and the manner of its reference, although the assistance of grammarian and dictionary-maker must be invoked to find the technical term appropriate to the definition of the feeling. Now everyone who knows that linnets and corncrakes and shrikes and whinchats are birds, and that these are the ordinary English designations of them, must sub-consciously place those designations in the same category as sparrow and thrush, and no one with grammatical knowledge will doubt that sparrow and thrush are common names. External evidence for this is found in the use of the articles and the formation of plurals without any sense of incongruence. If whinchat is felt to be more of a proper name than sparrow, it is because a proper name is merely a word in which one feature common to all words whatsoever—the power of conveying distinctions by means of distinctive sounds—is discerned in its purest form, and our attention is drawn to the distinctive sound or writing (which is merely sound translated into another medium) more urgently in the case of a rare word than in that of a common one.

(1) Vendryes, Le Langage, Paris, 1921, p. 222.

/52/ None the less I think a good case may be made out for regarding the scientific Latin names of birds and plants as more of proper names than their common English equivalents. (1) The name Brassica rapa easily evokes the thought of a botanist classifying a number of specimens which to the lay mind are much alike, and to one of which he gives the name Brassica rapa, just as a parent names his baby. We have no such thought about the word turnip, and Brassica rapa is simply the scientific name for the ordinary turnip. We may find confirmatory support for regarding Brassica rapa as a proper name, or at least as much more of a proper name than turnip, in the fact that we do not say This is a Brassica rapa or These are Brassica rapas, though we might say These are fine specimens of Brassica rapa. In so saying we appeal to the name of any single example of the type, whereas in speaking of a certain vegetable as a turnip we appeal to the similarity of that vegetable to others of its kind. The difference of linguistic attitude is a mere nuance, but it is a real one. In the one instance the sound of the name, what we usually describe as 'the name itself', is more in the foreground than in the other instance.

(1) Prof. Bröndal (see below p. 69) is the philologist who has most clearly taken this view.

[En appendice, p. 69, Gardiner précise:

In my view, on the contrary, the difference between proper names and substantives that are not proper names is almost purely psychological, and depends on the importance attached to the sound of the former by the linguistic community generally.

«A mon avis, au contraire, la différence entre les noms propres et les substantifs qui n'en sont pas est presque exclusivement psychologique, et dépend de l'importance attachée à la sonorité du premier par la communauté linguistique de manière générale.»]


Whether or no we classify the Latin names of plants and animals as proper names—admittedly they are borderline cases—it is undeniable that in fact those names refer to things existent in great number. If the contention of the last paragraph be deemed worthy of consideration, /53/ it is inevitable that the debate should be extended to new ground. The question whether the names of the months and of the days of the week should be regarded as proper names is one of much interest, since different languages take different lines about it. Whether a language uses capital letters or not is no proof, though it is a symptom that may be employed as evidence, if care be taken not to attach overmuch importance to it. The French write jeudi and janvier where we write Thursday and January, and I believe I am right in saying that most French grammarians would not admit month-names and daynames as proper names. That at all events these names are also general names (1) is clear from the facility and lack of strain felt in tous les jeudis (note the article and the plural ending) and in Mrs. Brown is at home on Thursdays. Nevertheless, there are details of usage, e.g. jeudi le 15 mars, which seem to place these names on a different footing from other common nouns. If the problem be stated in another way, it seems likely that the same answer would be obtained from both Frenchmen and Englishmen. If we were to ask : 'Which of the two words hiver (winter) and décembre (December) is more of a proper name than the other?' it would probably be admitted that the latter should have the preference. The reason is both obvious and interesting. The stretches of time indicated by the names of the seasons are felt to be more contrasted in their nature than those indicated by the month-names. Contiguous months may be much of a muchness, but there is an unmistakable difference between the seasons. Consequently in the names of the /54/ seasons the meaning plays a greater part in marking the distinction than is played by the meaning attaching to the month-names, and in the latter correspondingly the distinctive name, i.e. the distinctive word-sound, exercises a more important role in indicating the period meant. The month-name is for that reason more of a proper name than the name of the season.

It is a peculiarity of the months and the days of the week that a fixed order belongs to their meaning. It is undeniable that Wednesday implies the day after Tuesday and that before Thursday. Still that modicum of constant meaning does not compensate for the fact that the other characters of the day designated by the name Wednesday are variable and intangible and differ from person to person, so that the name itself is the only thing which we can cling to in order to uphold the distinction between one day and another.

It is superfluous to discuss feast days like Easter, Whitsunday, Lupercalia. To the Englishman at all events the names of these are proper names, though on account of their recurring every year they must join the ranks of the 'common proper names'.

(1) Here I avoid the term 'common nouns', since personally I should classify them, not as such, but as 'common proper names', see p. 19.