Most but not all languages have adjectives. Those that do not typically use words of another part of speech, often verbs, to serve the same semantic function; for example, such a language might have a verb that means "to be big", and would use as attributive verb construction analogous to "big-being house" to express what English expresses as "big house". Even in languages that do have adjectives, one language's adjective might not be another's; for example, whereas English uses "to be hungry" (hungry being an adjective), Dutch and French use "honger hebben" and "avoir faim," respectively (literally "to have hunger", hunger being a noun), and whereas Hebrew uses the adjective "זקוק" (zaqūq, roughly "in need of"), English uses the verb "to need".
Adjectives form an open class of words in most languages that have them; that is, it is relatively common for new adjectives to be formed via such processes as derivation. However, Bantu languages are well known for having only a small closed class of adjectives, and new adjectives are not easily derived. Igbo has an extremely limited number, just eight: ukwu 'big', nta 'small'; ojii 'dark', oca 'light'; ohuru 'new', ocye 'old'; oma 'good', ojoo 'bad'. Similarly, native Japanese adjectives (i-adjectives) are a closed class (as are native verbs), though nouns (which are open class) can be used in the genitive and there is the separate class of adjectival nouns (na-adjectives), which is also open, and functions similarly to noun adjuncts in English.
Adjectives and adverbs
Many languages, including English, distinguish between adjectives, which qualify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Not all languages have exactly this distinction and many languages, including English, have words that can function as both. For example, in English fast is an adjective in "a fast car" (where it qualifies the noun car), but an adverb in "he drove fast" (where it modifies the verb drove).
Main article: Determiner (linguistics)
Linguists today distinguish determiners from adjectives, considering them to be two separate parts of speech (or lexical categories), but formerly determiners were considered to be adjectives in some of their uses. In English dictionaries, which typically still do not treat determiners as their own part of speech, determiners are often recognizable by being listed both as adjectives and as pronouns. Determiners are words that are neither nouns nor pronouns, yet reference a thing already in context. Determiners generally do this by indicating definiteness (as in a vs. the), quantity (as in one vs. some vs. many), or another such property.
A given occurrence of an adjective can generally be classified into one of four kinds of uses:
- Attributive adjectives are part of the noun phrase headed by the noun they modify; for example, happy is an attributive adjective in "happy people". In some languages, attributive adjectives precede their nouns; in others, they follow their nouns; and in yet others, it depends on the adjective, or on the exact relationship of the adjective to the noun. In English, attributive adjectives usually precede their nouns in simple phrases, but often follow their nouns when the adjective is modified or qualified by a phrase acting as an adverb. For example: "I saw three happy kids", and "I saw three kids happy enough to jump up and down with glee." See also Postpositive adjective.
- Predicative adjectives are linked via a copula or other linking mechanism to the noun or pronoun they modify; for example, happy is a predicate adjective in "they are happy" and in "that made me happy." (See also: Predicative (adjectival or nominal), Subject complement.)
- Absolute adjectives do not belong to a larger construction (aside from a larger adjective phrase), and typically modify either the subject of a sentence or whatever noun or pronoun they are closest to; for example, happy is an absolute adjective in "The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going."
- Nominal adjectives act almost as nouns. One way this can happen is if a noun is elided and an attributive adjective is left behind. In the sentence, "I read two books to them; he preferred the sad book, but she preferred the happy", happy is a nominal adjective, short for "happy one" or "happy book". Another way this can happen is in phrases like "out with the old, in with the new", where "the old" means, "that which is old" or "all that is old", and similarly with "the new". In such cases, the adjective functions either as a mass noun (as in the preceding example) or as a plural count noun, as in "The meek shall inherit the Earth", where "the meek" means "those who are meek" or "all who are meek".
Main article: Adjectival phrase
An adjective acts as the head of an adjectival phrase. In the simplest case, an adjectival phrase consists solely of the adjective; more complex adjectival phrases may contain one or more adverbs modifying the adjective ("very strong"), or one or more complements (such as "worth several dollars", "full of toys", or "eager to please"). In English, attributive adjectival phrases that include complements typically follow their subject ("an evildoer devoid of redeeming qualities").
Other noun modifiers
In many languages, including English, it is possible for nouns to modify other nouns. Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts) are not predicative; a beautiful park is beautiful, but a car park is not "car". In plain English, the modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), or semantic patient ("man eater"). However, it can generally indicate almost any semantic relationship. It is also common for adjectives to be derived from nouns, as in boyish, birdlike, behavioral, famous, manly, angelic, and so on.
Many languages have special verbal forms called participles that can act as noun modifiers. In some languages, including English, there is a strong tendency for participles to evolve into adjectives. English examples of this include relieved (the past participle of the verb relieve, used as an adjective in sentences such as "I am so relieved to see you"), spoken (as in "the spoken word"), and going (the present participle of the verb go, used as an adjective in sentences such as "Ten dollars per hour is the going rate").
Other constructs that often modify nouns include prepositional phrases (as in "a rebel without a cause"), relative clauses (as in "the man who wasn't there"), other adjective clauses (as in "the bookstore where he worked"), and infinitive phrases (as in "a cake to die for").
In relation, many nouns take complements such as content clauses (as in "the idea that I would do that"); these are not commonly considered modifiers, however.
In many languages, attributive adjectives usually occur in a specific order. In general, the adjective order in English is:
- quantity or number
- quality or opinion
- proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
- purpose or qualifier
So, in English, adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old", not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color ("old white", not "white old"). So, we would say "A nice (opinion) little (size) old (age) white (color) brick (material) house."
This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some, like Spanish, it may only be a default (unmarked) word order, with other orders being permissible.
Due partially to borrowings from French, English has some adjectives that follow the noun as postmodifiers, called postpositive adjectives, such as time immemorial. Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs). All adjectives can follow nouns in certain constructions, such as tell me something new.
Comparison of adjectives
In many languages, adjectives can be compared. In English, for example, we can say that a car is big, that it is bigger than another is, or that it is the biggest car of all. Not all adjectives lend themselves to comparison, however; for example, the English adjective extinct is not considered comparable, in that it does not make sense to describe one species as "more extinct" than another. However, even most non-comparable English adjectives are still sometimes compared; for example, one might say that a language about which nothing is known is "more extinct" than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers. This is not a comparison of the degree of intensity of the adjective, but rather the degree to which the object fits the adjective's definition.
Comparable adjectives are also known as "gradable" adjectives, because they tend to allow grading adverbs such as very, rather, and so on.
Among languages that allow adjectives to be compared in this way, different approaches are used. Indeed, even within English, two different approaches are used: the suffixes -er and -est, and the words more and most. (In English, the general tendency is for shorter adjectives and adjectives from Anglo-Saxon to use -er and -est, and for longer adjectives and adjectives from French, Latin, Greek, and other languages to use more and most.) By either approach, English adjectives therefore have positive forms (big), comparative forms (bigger), and superlative forms (biggest). However, many other languages do not distinguish comparative from superlative forms.
Main article: Restrictiveness
Attributive adjectives, and other noun modifiers, may be used either restrictively (helping to identify the noun's referent, hence "restricting" its reference) or non-restrictively (helping to describe an already-identified noun). For example:
"He was a lazy sort, who would avoid a difficult task and fill his working hours with easy ones."
"difficult" is restrictive - it tells us which tasks he avoids, distinguishing these from the easy ones: "Only those tasks that are difficult".
"She had the job of sorting out the mess left by her predecessor, and she performed this difficult task with great acumen."
"difficult" is non-restrictive - we already know which task it was, but the adjective describes it more fully: "The aforementioned task, which (by the way) is difficult"
In some languages, such as Spanish, restrictiveness is consistently marked; for example, in Spanish la tarea difícil means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task that is difficult" (restrictive), whereas la difícil tarea means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task, which is difficult" (non-restrictive). In English, restrictiveness is not marked on adjectives, but is marked on relative clauses (the difference between "the man who recognized me was there" and "the man, who recognized me, was there" being one of restrictiveness).
In some languages, adjectives alter their form to reflect the gender, case and number of the noun that they describe. This is called agreement or concord. Usually it takes the form of inflections at the end of the word, as in Latin:
(good girl, feminine)
(good girl, feminine accusative/object case)
(good boy, masculine)
(good boys, masculine plural)
In the Celtic languages, however, initial consonant lenition marks the adjective with a feminine noun, as in Irish:
(good boy, masculine)
(good girl, feminine)
Often a distinction is made here between attributive and predicative usage. Whereas English is an example of a language in which adjectives never agree and French of a language in which they always agree, in German they agree only when used attributively, and in Hungarian only when used predicatively.
The good (Ø) boys.
The boys are good (Ø).
Les bons garçons.
Les garçons sont bons.
Die braven Jungen.
Die Jungen sind brav (Ø).
A jó (Ø) fiúk.
A fiúk jók.