In the beginning was the word. And the word was…
Well, what word comes first? What kind of word comes first? Is there a kind of word that is most important?
In truth, we’re inevitably going to be looking at this question through the goggles of a specific language – in our case, English. But if we only had one kind of word to use, what kind of word would it be?
Well, adjectives and adverbs can be eliminated right away, as they exist to modify nouns and verbs; in many cases an adjective-noun or adverb-verb combination can be replaced by a single noun or verb (sometimes one that is really the adjective or adverb converted, but once it’s verbed or nouned, it’s a verb or a noun!). Likewise, prepositions exist primarily to relate other words to each other, and some languages minimize their use, preferring inflections of the nouns to do the same job.
We might be tempted to look at what kinds of one-word expressions we have. But aside from having a bit of fun with analyzing, say, “Fire!” (noun or verb?), we are forced to admit that one-word expressions are not really the template for larger expressions; they are typically phatic (“Damn!”), performative (“Thanks!”), demanding (“Gimme!”), admonitory (“Fire!”), or hortatory (“Fire!”), but in the main they’re different in kind and not just in size from larger expressions.
So… nouns or verbs? Every sentence needs a subject and a predicate. It is true that many of them in English feature the verb be as a copula and the real predicate is a quality (e.g., It is true) or even another noun (e.g., The predicate is a noun). In some languages such sentences don’t even use a verb form at all; they just put the adjective and the noun next to each other and let nature take its course. But it is likewise true that some languages can form entire sentences with a single verb to which have been attached inflectional and modifying affixes. In fact, it’s even true in English that an entire sentence can be formed with a verb… if it’s an imperative: “Run!” (or, yes, “Fire!”).
In the world’s languages, it is usual – though not universal – for the information about when the action in a sentence is happening to be attached to the verb. It is even often the case that information about who is doing the action is attached to the verb. Think of Italian Capisci? “Do you understand?” Or Latin Peccavi – “I have sinned.” And to me, it seems perfectly apposite for the verb to be the most fundamental kind of word, since life – all existence – is change and motion; fixity is an illusion (certainly at the atomic level, at the very least!).
So, now, in the beginning was the word. Say… what is that in Latin?
In principio erat verbum.
Yes… Latin for “word” is verbum. From which we get verb. That doesn’t prove anything, of course. But I like it: in the beginning was a verb.