Can Subject/Verb Agreement Make the World Go Round?

David Cowles

Mar 22, 2022

We imagine that our world is made up of ‘things’ (nouns), their accidental qualities (adjectives), and the relationships between them (verbs). We imagine this because just such a classification system is embedded in our native tongue: modern English, for example, or most any other contemporary Indo-European language.

We imagine that our world is made up of ‘things’ (nouns), their accidental qualities (adjectives), and the relationships between them (verbs). We imagine this because just such a classification system is embedded in our native tongue: modern English, for example, or most any other contemporary Indo-European language.


What can we say about such a classification system? First, it works; it works well, marvelously well! The enormous technological progress achieved over the past 500 years is a direct reflection of the power of grammar – who knew? (Pity the 5th grader overheard asking, “Why do I have to learn all this grammar? What good is it? I’ll never use it.”)


In a world made up of subjects, objects, verbs, and attributes, each of us (subjects) becomes the center of our own world, and everything that is not us (objects) becomes raw material (yes, even other people) for us to shape in service of our own ends. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to transform that raw material, to rearrange its attributes so that nature can be more productive.


This is one way to slice and dice the world, and it works beautifully, provided that material productivity is the only standard of measurement. This is one way to slice and dice the world…but it is not the only way!


William James advanced a theory of buds or units (quanta?) of experience. He developed what became known as the James-Lange theory, which argues that emotions arise as a physiological response to external events. James’ model is broad enough to include all of the usual parts of speech, only now, the measured experience (the bud) itself is the subject, the object, the network of relationships, and the shifting attributes mentioned above. The focus has moved from the individual to the individual’s experience with external events. Each bud, therefore, is like the universe experiencing itself and acting on itself; we are just grateful parts of that process.

Were language built to reflect the dynamics of James’ buds, it might be a less efficient tool of industrial production, but it would certainly be a much more efficient medium for interpersonal communication.


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