Proper Nouns in IEML

The purpose of this page is to explain how referential semantics works in IEML, and in particular how this metalanguage deals with proper nouns. I have made the distinction between linguistic semantics and referential semantics here and there. Nevertheless, in what follows, I remind the reader the main ideas on which this distinction is based. 

Art: Emma Kunz

Linguistic semantics and referential semantics

Linguistic semantics is internal to language, whereas referential semantics bridges the gap between an utterance and what it is talking about. 

When I say that « oaks are trees », I am only specifying the conventional meaning of the word « oak ». But if I say that « that tree in the yard is an oak », then I am pointing to a state of affairs, and my proposition is true or false. The second statement obviously involves linguistic semantics since I must first know the meaning of the words and the English grammar to understand it. But in addition to the linguistic dimension, a referential semantics is added since the statement refers to a particular object in a concrete situation. 

A classical dictionary defines the conventional meaning of words in a language, each word being explained using other words which are themselves explained by other words, and so on in a circular fashion. A dictionary is therefore primarily a matter of linguistic semantics. An encyclopedic dictionary, on the other hand, contains descriptions of real or fictitious individuals with names of deities, novel heroes, historical figures and events, geographical objects, monuments, works of the mind, etc. Its main function is to list and describe objects external to the system of a language. It thus records a referential semantics.

Linguistic semantics relates a signifier to a signified. For example, the signifier « tree » has as its signified « a woody plant, of variable size, whose trunk grows branches from a certain height ». On the other hand, referential semantics relates a signifier to a referent.  For example, the signifier « Napoleon » designates a historical figure.

Individuals and categories

Words in a classical dictionary, especially common nouns, usually refer to categories, whereas entries in an encyclopedic dictionary refer to individuals. The common noun « tree » designates any tree, the class of trees, whereas the « Bodhi Tree » of Bodh Gaya in India is an individual with a proper name. 

By « category » I mean a class, a kind, a set, a collection, etc. And it is not by chance that a set of beings or objects are brought together in the same category, but rather by common traits. In contrast to a category, an « individual » is unique, discrete, particular, whether it is a person, a thing, an event, a place, a date, etc. We can enlarge the concept of individual by following Bertrand Russell, who proposes the following definition: « a series of facts linked together by causal relations ». In this sense the Ecosystem of the Amazonian forest or the French Revolution are indeed individuals.

The two notions of individual and category form a system: the individuals belong to categories and the elements to sets. The individual is rather concrete, like Marjorie who is in front of me, whereas the general category is abstract, like humanity, which I cannot touch.

Let us not confuse « general category » with « whole » nor « individual » with « part ». Wholes are not abstract sets but individuals, just like parts. For example, an animal organism is a total individual and its organs are individual parts of that whole. This elephant is an individual specimen of the elephant class, but its trunk is a part of the elephant’s body.

Proper nouns and common nouns: a definition 

I will now define the difference between common and proper nouns. My goal here is not to settle definitively a debate that great linguists, logicians and philosophers have been having for several centuries on this topic, but rather to set a useful convention for the IEML (Information Economy MetaLanguage) metalanguage by following the majoritarian consensus in philosophy and linguistics.  

A common noun

(1) It designates a category. 
(2) It has a relatively constant signifier in the language system, i.e. it has a place in the cyclical network of signifiers of a dictionary.
(3) It can also acquire a referent in a variable way, according to the acts of enunciation where it is used, as in « this bottle ».

A proper noun 

(1) It designates an individual.
(2) It is a signifier that has no meaning (or signified) in the language system. 
(3) It has a constant referent conferred by a social tradition that goes back to an act of naming. According to Saul Kripke, a proper noun is a « rigid designator » whose main function is to allow us to talk about an object independently of the properties it possesses and the interpretations we give it.

These definitions can be misunderstood and there are some exceptions. 

Is it true that a proper noun has no meaning?

Let’s start by evoking the instinctive revolt against the idea that a proper noun has no meaning. For when I hear the word « Napoleon » I (who have followed the French school curriculum) immediately imagine the bicorn, the golden bees, the young general crossing the Arcole bridge with a flag in his hand, the civil code, the disaster of Beresina, etc. But Napoleon is neither a common noun in the French language, nor in the English language for that matter. He is a historical figure. The images that this signifier evokes are not conventional signifieds but connotations that can vary greatly depending on whether one is French or English, Bonapartist or Legitimist, militarist or pacifist, sensitive or not to the abolitionist cause (the law of May 20, 1802 re-established slavery), etc. The connotations are variable, but the reference to the individual is constant and unambiguous. Proper nouns may have connotations, but they have no conventional meaning in the system of a natural language.

Do common nouns always refer to general categories?

Another doubtful point: do common nouns always designate general categories? For example, is the moon, the only satellite of the earth, a common noun or a proper noun? And if it is a common noun, how is it that « the moon » designates an individual? But let’s note that we are talking about the moons of Jupiter, which were discovered by Galileo. The word « moon » is therefore a common noun. When it is used in the singular form with a definite article without any other precision, it refers to the silvery star with a quasi-monthly cycle that lights up our nights, otherwise it means the category of planetary satellites. The same problem arises for other cosmic objects, like the sun, the earth, the sky, etc. As a general rule, whenever a noun can be used in the plural without absurdity, then it is a common noun. Buddhist philosophy multiplies « earths »: the ten Bhūmis (Sanskrit for « earths ») are successive stages on the way of the Bodhisattva. Although at first sight it seems that there is only one sky, the word has several plurals in English: “heavens » in the spiritual sense and « skies » in the material sense. Do we not speak of the skies of Turner or Monet? On the other hand, Mars or Saturn are particular satellites or personal deities, and I have never seen them used in the plural. They are therefore proper nouns designating astronomical or mythological individuals.

Art Emma Kunz

In some uses, a general category may be considered an individual

Another troubling case: we can refer to a general category by considering it as an individual. When I say « This fruit in my hand is a melon » I am using the word « melon » as a general category in which I am classifying the individual fruit that is in my hand. So far, so good. But I can always consider a general category as an individual, an element of the set of general categories: this is the realist or Platonic point of view. For example, when I say “the melon is a fruit », « melon » is in the singular, and it is accompanied by a definite article. It is therefore an individual. But this is only one possible use of a common noun, and it does not place the word « melon » in the category of proper nouns. As soon as a general category is placed by a statement in the position of a referent (we speak of « that category »), the usage makes it an individual. It is enough to distinguish the logical levels. Let us remember that when a word has a signified in the language system, it is a common noun, although it can be used to designate an individual.

Proper nouns can be used as prototypes of general categories

In the effort to discriminate between proper and common nouns, the greatest difficulty comes from the use of proper nouns as prototypes of general categories. For example, we speak of statuettes that are prehistoric Venuses or of a lifeguard who is an Apollo. A slow-witted person is ironically called Einstein, etc. « The Venuses » contradicts the general rule we stated above, that whenever a noun can be used in the plural without absurdity, then it is a common noun. Much worse, proper nouns can give rise to adjectives denoting abstract qualities. For example, one may emphasize the contrast between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution, or evoke the Napoleonic wars or Platonic ideas. Of course, Venus, Apollo, Plato, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Darwin, etc. are individuals, but these individuals have left such a mark on the imagination that they have become the « central members », or archetypal figures, of categories including individuals who resemble them or who possess a spatial-temporal contiguity with them (the « Napoleonic period »). From then on, the proper noun is used figuratively as a common noun, or as a generic quality in the case of an adjective constructed from a proper noun. We are therefore dealing in these cases with exceptions to our rule, in which proper nouns are used (by metaphor, metonymy, contiguity, etc.) to designate categories.

Proper noun and references in IEML

Each of the three thousand words in the IEML dictionary is defined by phrases using other words, and each complex expression in IEML (groups of words, phrases, texts) refers to the circular inter-definition of the dictionary. This circular inter-definition in a dictionary is in fact the case for all languages. According to their grammatical roles in an utterance, the three thousand words of the IEML dictionary can be read as nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs. Their signifieds are general categories. The signifiers of these general categories are constructed to have the maximum of functional relations with their signifieds. The signifiers of the same semantic field belong to the same paradigm and have syntactic similarities. The material composition of the signifiers and their respective positions in the paradigms give indications about their meaning. For example, the signifiers of colors or feelings have syntactic features in common. Colors that contain red or feelings that are close to anger also have common material features. This is what makes IEML an ideography. This type of signifier/signified relationship is obviously not found in natural languages, in which the words for colors, or feelings, do not have common phonetic features. Together with the flawless regularity of its grammar, this functional relationship between signifier and signified makes IEML a language with computable (linguistic) semantics. 

On the other hand, proper nouns like Napoleon or Fuji Yama do not have a translation in IEML and, therefore, their linguistic semantics is not computable in IEML. In IEML proper nouns are considered as signifiers that have no signified (at least not in IEML) and whose meaning is therefore purely referential. References, like proper nouns, are noted in angle brackets. Here are some examples that highlight the particular case of Napoleon. In the IEML sentences that follow (between parenthesis), the words in italics designate the grammatical roles of the line they initiate, and words in English contain links to the corresponding IEML word.

(root  the  officerstrategist  <Napoleon>).

The expression means: « the general Napoleon »


( root  the   chief  <Napoleon>,
manner   of   empire).

The expression means: « the emperor Napoléon » 


(root  empty <Napoleon>). 

Here Napoléon is not qualified by any general category.


(root   plural   war  ,
manner of   officerstrategist <Napoleon>).

The expression means: « the Napoleonic wars » 


The expression « the Napoleonic wars » may be reified this way:

@alias the-Napoleonic-wars
(root  plural    war,
manner of   officerstrategist  <Napoleon>).


L’expression définie ci-dessus peut être réutilisée dans une phrase, par exemple:

(root being wounded,
subject  singular    pronoun third person,
time  past,
time  during  the-Napoleonic-wars). 

The expression means: « he has been wounded during the Napoleonic wars »

In this example, we see how an IEML sentence (including a sentence containing a proper noun) can be reified and used as a word in a sentence at a higher level of linguistic complexity. This type of operation can be repeated recursively, thus achieving high levels of differentiation and semantic precision. 


The two preceding examples show that it is possible to use proper nouns as prototypes of general categories in IEML, as is done in natural languages. However, as a general rule, we prefer to express directly the categories evoked by proper nouns in some natural languages by categories in IEML. For example, to translate « sadist » we will not use the name of the Marquis de Sade, but simply say « someone who likes to make others suffer. »


In the example below, the object of the main proposition is a secondary proposition (look at the parenthesis inside the parenthesis) and the semantic emphasis (the exclamation mark) is on the person (whoever) who likes to make others suffer.

@alias sadist
root like, desire 
subject ! whoever
(root making suffer,
object pluralother people)


Personal names, addresses, dates, GPS positions, numbers, units of measure, currencies, geographic objects, URLs, etc. are all considered proper nouns or individual references and are enclosed in angle brackets. The first twelve natural numbers are nevertheless considered common nouns (they « exist » in IEML and are connected to ordinal numbers, symmetries, regular geometric figures, etc.). Large geographical areas also exist in IEML. They are considered as general categories and can be assimilated to « postal codes » which give rise to semantic calculations. These geographical IEML codes allow to determine the respective positions (North, East, etc.) of the coded areas, as well as to locate and group countries, cities and other geographical objects.


For example to say « Italy » in IEML, we write:

(root  Center-South Europa <Italia>).

In this expression « Center-South Europa » is part of the paradigm of european countries.


To say « the number 292 », we write:

(root  number <292>).


To say the « name of a customer », we write:

(root name < Smith > ,
manner of   customer) .

The reader will contrast the IEML approach with that of the Semantic Web, in which URIs do not distinguish between general categories and rigid designators and cannot be subject to semantic computation from their material form (a sequence of characters). In fact, all URIs are rigid designators. Of course, the IEML approach and the semantic web approach are not incompatible since valid IEML expressions or USLs (Uniform Semantic Locators) have a unique form and can be represented as URIs.

Linguistic self-reference in IEML

We have seen above that USLs can contain proper nouns, numbers and other expressions that are opaque to the IEML semantic computation. USLs can also refer to other USLs, as can be seen in the example below.


@alias Bravo-Einstein!
(root congratulate,
subject singular   first person,
object singular   second person <Einstein>).

(root  indicative mood  mock 
subject his   sentence <Bravo-Einstein!>
object   singular   second person)



Cormier Agathe. « Relecture pragmatique de Kripke pour une approche dialogique du nom propre ». 4e Congrès Mondial de Linguistique Française, Jul 2014, Berlin, Allemagne. p. 3059-3074

Frege Gottlob, « Sens et dénotation ». 1892. Trad. de C. Imbert. In Écrits logiques et philosophiques. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1971, 102-126.

Kripke Saul, Naming and Necessity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1980. Trad. fr. La logique des noms propres, Paris, Minuit, 1982, (trad. P. Jacob et F. Recanati).

Mill John Stuart, A System of Logic, 1843. Trad. fr. Mill, John Stuart, Système de logique déductive et inductive, trad. fr. L. Peisse Paris, Alcan, 1896. 

Récanati François, « La sémantique des noms propres : remarques sur la notion de « désignateur rigide» ». In: Langue française, n°57, 1983. Grammaire et référence, sous la direction de Georges Kleiber et Martin Riegel. pp. 106-118.


Rosch Eleanor., « Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories », Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol.104, No.3, September 1975, pp. 192–233.

Rosch Eleanor, « Natural categories », Cognitive Psychology 1973 4, pp. 328-350.

Russell Bertrand. Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. London: George Allen & Unwin (1948). Trad fr. La connaissance humaine : sa portée et ses limites. Trad. N. Lavand. Paris : J. Vrin, 2002

Vandendorpe, Christian, « Quelques considérations sur le nom propre. Pour un éclairage du linguistique par le cognitif et réciproquement ». In Langage et société, numéro 66, déc. 1993, p. 63-75.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, (specially paragraph 79), Trad Anscombe, Basil Blackwell, 1958.

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