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The other day I read a question about nouns being used as verbs. An answer informed that in English any word can be used as a verb, but that it is not so in other languages. Beyond verbs, English is a very flexible language in general. (This is based on my own experience of English, Spanish and Arabic. I would gladly hear a linguistic argument that English is in fact not looser than other languages.)

Has English has always been less restrained? Or can we date the allowed playfulness to a particular period? Is it simply because our linguistic champion and forefather (of ModEng) was Shakespeare and that he engendered a culture of linguistic liberty?

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    Nouns as verbs: you mean "Jerry, bottom line your findings for us, if you would, please"? (To which Jerry says, "Hey, here's your bottom line!") – rhetorician Dec 13 '13 at 17:12
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    "Loose" is not a very precise term; it's a metaphor, and it's not clear what's being loosened, nor how, nor what it was tightly bonded to before. In fact English is an analytic language, with little morphology and consequently little use for strict word classes; in analytic languages like English, Chinese, or Malay it's very common to use the same word as either a noun or a verb. If it's used like a verb, it's a verb; if it's used like a noun, it's a noun. It may well be used for other purposes, too. – John Lawler Dec 13 '13 at 17:21
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    Okay - we've Lawlered this one. Any more questions? – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '13 at 17:47
  • There's also this earlier question, for which the answers pretty much net down to when it's used like an adverb, it's an adverb. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '13 at 17:50
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    Related. – Robusto Dec 13 '13 at 21:43
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I'll bite. But it's going to be a long answer.

English is a moderately inflected language. The more inflected a language is, the less flexibility there is in it, and. vs versa, the less inflected a language is, the "looser" or more flexible it is.

The most heavily inflected language I know is Ancient Latin. They didn't have articles, and often didn't use pronouns, because the language was so clear as to who was doing what, unless they wanted to emphasize something (this particular girl instead of that one). Also, it was so inflected that if you jumbled all the words in a sentence, the sentence still made perfect sense because every word was specific in its meaning; there was no need for syntax except to emphasize a word. In English, man bites dog means something different than dog bites man. In Latin, if writing "man bites dog", the common way to arrange words would be man, dog, bites. But if you wanted to emphasize the man, you would say dog, bites, man, and it wouldn't change at all who was the subject and who was the object. That holds true for sentences of many words as well (crazed man bites frightened innocent dog could be written frightened crazed dog man innocent bites and it would still be understood correctly.) They had no periods, and often no spaces between words - didn't really need them to be understood. Any of the Romance (descended from Latin) Languages (Italian, Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and various subsets) are inflected, more so than English, some not by much.

Some languages are analytic, and do not change the words (inflect them) but depend more on word order for meaning. Each word can stand alone, kind of like a picture or idea. Hieroglyphics was the ultimate analytic language (I actually learned to read hieroglyphics) where a glyph meant the same thing every time. It could be written left to right, right to left, or top to bottom without any problem. You changed the meaning of the word by adding another glyph, not changing the glyph. For example, there is a glyph for man. Alone, it stood for a man. If you added a certain glyph near it, the glyph for idea, then you read it as an thought, not a reality. If you added the glyph for plural, it became men, if you added two glyphs plural plural, it became many men. Similarly the glyph for water could mean water or motion. (Added to that, some glyphs also represented sounds, so if they didn't have a glyph, for example, for someone's name, they would spell it out with glyphs, but the glyphs weren't different from the glyphs for words, for example, the glyph for lion could mean "lion", "idea of a lion" or "L sound" (true but completely coincidental). (If you see "Cleopatra" in hieroglyphics, you'll see the lion near the beginning of the name. It was thanks to Greek rulers over Egypt that the hieroglyphic language was eventually solved.

All that is to say, analytic languages are very loose, much, much looser than English. Analytic languages include Chinese, Vietnamese and others.

So, your questions.

...in English any word can be used as a verb, but that it is not so in other languages.

Absolutely not so. Some nouns can also be verbs (or vice versa). Run can be a verb (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) or it could be a noun. (The play had a long run on Broadway.) This is not uncommon, but you cannot take any noun and verbify it. Slang use can be incorporated into proper speech, for example Google, the name of a company (a proper noun), has been verbified (Did you G/google that for your answer?). Adjectives can be made into adverbs by inflecting them. Some words can be both noun and adjective (Pat likes sweet drinks. Pat likes sweets in general.) So, English is not particularly "loose". Slang is looser, of course, and it's in this manner that language changes. If enough people use Google, the noun might become a slang verb, which might be accepted into proper English.

Has English has always been less restrained? Or can we date the allowed playfulness to a particular period? Is it simply because our linguistic champion and forefather (of Mod Eng) was Shakespeare and that he engendered a culture of linguistic liberty?

No. Indo-European languages have always been inflected. There have been bursts of expansion in the history of any language, and a big one for English started on 14 October, 1066, when William of Normandy (part of present day France) defeated Harold II of England in the Battle of Hastings, after which French became the language of the king's court, gradually blending with the Anglo-Saxon tongue to give birth to modern English. Since Shakespeare was born in 1564, he had little to do with the most significant growth period in the English language, and was as constrained as his contemporaries. When Samuel Johnson published "A Dictionary of the English Language" in 1755, it served to stabilize English and put the brakes on it, constraining it further, so to speak.

The Father of Modern English lived two centuries before Shakespeare. It can be (and has been) disputed who deserves this title: Geoffrey Chaucer or Thomas Mallory (author of Le Morte d'Arthur). Many consider Chaucer to have written in Late Middle English, and Mallory as having written the first great work in Early Modern English. Shakespeare wrote great works during the Renaissance but cannot be called the father of Modern English.

The Bayeux Tapestry, showing the defeat and death of Harold, Rex

veritas vos liberabit

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  • I don't understand how Shakespeare was "constrained" until Johnson wrote his dictionary. Shakespeare himself coined many words — a good many of the un- prefixed words, in fact. He also made liberal use of verbed nouns: "But indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby." (Hamlet) – Robusto Dec 13 '13 at 21:54
  • But Johnson's dictionary itself was intended as a constraint. It feels like you're trying to say it was a liberation. – Robusto Dec 13 '13 at 22:06
  • Then I don't get what you mean by the preceding part: '... and was as constrained as the rest of them were until Samuel Johnson published "A Dictionary of the English Language" in 1755.' It seems like you're making the opposite point. – Robusto Dec 13 '13 at 22:21
  • (man:m, dog:j, bite:s,a) = (dog:j, man:m, bite:s,a) = (bite:s,a dog:j, man:m) = (give-bite:s,d, man:m, dog:j) = (man:m, dog:j, give-bite:s,d). Where (m=accusative, d=dative, j=indicative, s=singular, a=active) – Blessed Geek Dec 13 '13 at 23:39
  • “but you cannot take any noun and verbify it” — Yes, that's exactly what you can do! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 14 '13 at 3:26

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