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Aristotle, On Interpretation. Chapter 2


by Mr. William C. Michael

In the previous lesson, we set out the goals for the study of Aristotle’s work “On Interpretation”. In this lesson, we zoom in and study the first of the principal parts of speech: the Noun.

Aristotle’s Text

Translated by Thomas Taylor

Chapter 2. Of the Noun

1. A Noun is a spoken sound, used to signify something by compact, without time, of which no part taken separately is spoken to signify anything.

2. Thus, in the Greek noun kallippos, the part ippos is not spoken to signify anything by itself, as it is in the phrase kalos ippos (beautiful horse).

3. Nor is it in simple nouns as it is in nouns that are conjoined.

4. For in simple nouns, a part is by no means spoken to signify anything by itself; but in the latter, a part wishes to be significant, yet is not spoken to signify anything by itself.

5. Thus, in the word epaktrokeles, the part keles is not spoken to signify anything by itself.

6. I say “according to compact” because no name or noun is provided by nature, but is established (by men) as a symbol.

7. For illiterate sounds also signify something, such as the sounds of beasts, of which there is no noun.

8. The expression “not man”, however, is not a noun. Neither is a name instituted by which it ought to be called; for it is neither a sentence, nor a negation.

9. Let this be called an indefinite noun, because it is similarly inherent in that which exists, as in that which does not.

10. The words Philonos, Philoni, and such like, are not nouns, but are the cases of a noun.

11. But the definition of the cases of a noun is the same as the definition of a noun (i.e., the Nominative case).

12. Because, however, in conjunction with the verb “is” or “was” or “will be”, the case of a noun does not signify anything true or false, while a noun always signifies this, hence it differs from a noun.

13. For instance, the phrases “Philonos is” and “Philonos is not.” do not signify anything true or false.

Lesson Commentary

by Mr. William C. Michael

1. We begin with the definition of a noun. Remember that the word “noun” simply means “name”. This definition should be memorized: “A Noun is a spoken sound, used to signify something by compact, without time, of which no part taken separately is spoken to signify anything.” Note that a noun is not “a person, place or thing”, as these exist outside of the mind, but “a spoken sound used to signify something”. These signs are not natural, but are established “by compact”, that is, human agreement. The meanings of words we use are found in dictionaries, which contain the agreed upon meanings for these spoken symbols. Nouns do not express any notion of time by signify a substance (substantive noun) or attribute in a subject (adjective noun). Lastly, a noun is spoken as a word which signifies a single, simple conception. In this sense, the parts of the noun are insignificant because they are not spoken with any intention other than to form the whole noun and to name the concept signified by that whole noun.

2-5. In the second sentence, Aristotle simply provides an example to show us that, while a noun may be made up of parts which have meaning by themselves, those parts do not have their own meaning when joined together to signify an idea as a noun. In Greek, the word kalos means “beautiful”, and the word hippos means “horse”. When they are joined to form the man’s name Kallippos, the whole noun is used to signify the man, and the parts do not signify “beautiful” and “horse”. As a modern comparison, in the word “hotdog” the parts “hot” and “dog” do not retain their separate meanings.

In line 5, however, Aristotle explains that this is determined by the intention of the speaker, for a compound noun could be used where the parts of the noun do have meaning–but these are compound nouns. The word “submarine”, for example, is composed of two parts “sub” (under) and “marine” (water), and the author intends for the meaning of those parts to be understood.

6. As mentioned above, spoken words do not have any natural meaning. Meaning is assigned to words by men. We see this taught in Sacred Scripture: “And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.” (Genesis 2:19) The name of a thing usually does relate to its nature, but the name is given by man, not nature.

7. “Illiterate sounds” are instinctive sounds made by irrational creatures by nature, or bodily sounds made by any living creatures. For example, the barking of a dog may be understood to have a meaning, but a bark is not a part of speech. The same is true of a cat’s meow, a duck’s quack, a bird’s chirping, a cow’s mooing, and so on. These are illiterate natural sounds, not parts of speech. Sometimes, men make words using the natural sounds, as when we speak of the “roar” of a lion or the “meow” of a cat, but the sounds made by the animals are not, themselves, words. Likewise, when men, who are rational animals, cough, sneeze, yawn, clap or whistle, these sounds are not words and, therefore, have nothing to do with the art of reasoning.

8-9. In lines 8-9, Aristotle speaks of “indefinite nouns”, such as “not man”. The expression “not man”, however, is not a noun. Neither is a name instituted by which it ought to be called; for it is neither a sentence, nor a negation.

10-13. In lines 10-11, Aristotle explains the difference between a noun (i.e., the nominative (regular) form of a noun), and the other forms, which we call “cases”. In Greek there are the Genitive, Dative, Accusative and Vocative cases, and to these Latin adds the Ablative. When we speak of a noun in reasoning, we are not speaking of the cases of nouns, but only of the regular form of the noun, which we would find in a dictionary. Aristotle gives the examples of the name Philon, with its genitive case Philonos and dative case Philoni. The nominative case, Philon, is a noun, but Philonos and Philoni are not. Nevertheless, the definition of a noun is true in all of its cases, but the different forms express different relationships with the other words in a phrase or sentence. Aristotle proves this by showing that if the verb “is” or “is not” is joined to the nominative form, something true or false will be signified, but this will not be so if the verb is added to a case of a noun.


In this lesson, Aristotle explains for us what Nouns are, the first part of enunciative speech.

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