LINGUIST List 11.2277

Fri Oct 20 2000

Sum: Indeclinable Words - 2

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Mike Maxwell, Indeclinable Words - 2

Message 1: Indeclinable Words - 2

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 2000 11:21:35 -0400
From: Mike Maxwell <>
Subject: Indeclinable Words - 2

In Linguist List 11.2149, I gave a summary of responses to my query (in LL
11.1948) concerning "indeclinable" words (or "invariable" words, as some
have suggested). I have since received further messages on the issue, as
well as several comments on English animal names which are identical in the
singular and plural. Herewith a summary of those further comments. (Again,
I apologize for the length and level of detail--this just isn't one of those
issues that you can summarize without doing violence to the data.)

Joost Kremers ( wrote:

In the spoken arabic dialect of cairo (which is notably different from
standard arabic), adjectives normally have tree forms: masculine singular, 
feminine singular and a common plural form. adjectives agree with the noun they
modify, with two exceptions:

- So-called nisbe adjectives, which are derived from a noun by means of the
suffix -i, only agree with animate nouns. with inanimate nouns.
They are usually invariable. so one would say "bint 'amrikaaniyya" `girl
american.f", but "sagaayir amrikaani" `sigarets american-", where
"amrikaani" remains unmarked.

- There is a class of adjectives that is usually termed "invariable", that
only have one form:

 shiik 'chique' (obviously a loneword)
 kifaaya 'enough'
 `aada 'normal, regular'
 shabah 'similar'
 ghalaT 'wrong, incorrect'

Only one of these is a loanword, the others are 'pure' arabic....
I have no idea why these words would be invariable. The fact that 'shiik'
is a loanword does not constitute an explanation for this particular word
either, because in most cases, loanwords conform to the normal conjugational
patterns that exist.

- -------------------------

In a later email, Joost added:

The adjectives I mentioned here are all originally nouns.
With 'originally', I mean in classical arabic, which is the basis from
which the spoken varieties of arabic derive. (In fact, `aada is still
used as a normal noun in spoken arabic. Presumably for that reason,
there is also a true adjective `aadi, which is derived from `aada with the
nisba ending.)

This fact could perhaps explain why they are invariable. They may
first have been used as appositives to other nouns, gradually taking
the meaning of an adjective, whithout developing the adjective morphology.

- -------------------------

I had said that Spanish did not have productive noun-noun compounding (in
the course of wondering why in "dos camisas naranja", the word "naranja" did
not agree in number with the head noun "camisas"). Jeff Turley
( mentioned that in modern Spanish, noun-noun compounds
are becoming more common, perhaps in part through the influence of English
(I guess that's better than some of the other things we export!).

- -------------------------

Ivan A Derzhanski ( kindly corrected s.t. I said in my

Me (quoting someone):
>>>Kejt-in-og "Kate's ? genitive, masculine, sg.' (meaning 'of Kate's')
Me (commenting on above line):
>> (I just noticed in editing this reply the '?'s here--I suspect it
>> is a character that my email has mangled, not the glottal stop.)

>It is more likely a question mark made to stand for `whatever noun
>(phrase) one might want to put here'.

A few other comments on my summary (showing the danger of trying to say s.t.
about a language you don't know!):

Me (quoting someone):
>> >Masculine person names are indeclinable in Romanian --
>> >when they occur in a genitive position, the pronoun 'he'
>> >must be used in apposition to them.
Me (just myself!):
>> An odd constraint, that.

.Not so odd, perhaps, if one considers that masculine common nouns
>don't decline either; their case is only indicated by the accompanying
>article. Proper names don't take articles, so other strategies apply.

Me (quoting someone):
> >Also in Russian, a woman's name ending in a consonant is not
> >declined. But this includes many names you'd hesitate to call
> >foreign, e.g., _Borodich_.

>Foreign enough as a woman's surname; in Russian _-ich_ is a suffix
>that is characteristic of men's patronymics.

- -------------------------

Jeremy Whistle ( mentioned a number of sets
of indeclinable words in French (proper names, in addition to the color
words mentioned in the first summary), German (proper names), Italian (non
loan words ending with '�', and certain loan words: "il camion, i
camion"--in both cases, the words can take derivational suffixes).

- -------------------------

Finally, I had said in my original summary that English nouns referring to
game animals were unmarked for plural. Several people questioned me on
this, giving the word "sheep." Now there are mountain sheep that some
people hunt (or did hunt), but that admittedly seems a lame answer. Tom
Carey ( suggested that the relevant characteristic
is whether the animals are (or were) normally encountered in herds. (I'm
not sure about deer, though: where I live in North Carolina, they often come
in groups of three to ten, but I'm not sure that's common elsewhere; and
wolves are found in similar sized packs--at least in the old stories!)
Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik "A Grammar of Contemporary English"
suggest that zero plurals are "used partly by people who are expecially
concerned with animals, partly when the animals are referred to in mass as
food or game" (page 178 in the 1979 edition).

I forgot to mention that there are also some fish names which also (usually)
take zero plurals: bass, crappie, pike, carp, trout, salmon, and of course
the word 'fish' itself, along with compounds ending in 'fish' (catfish,
sunfish etc.); but not bluegills, bullheads, sharks, alewives (or alewifes),
eels, etc.

For some reason, grouse (a kind of bird) also takes a zero plural, although
most other birds do not. (QGLS say wild--but not domesticated--ducks are
also found with a zero plural.) Jeremy Whistle reports that bird watchers
in the UK often use zero plurals, e.g. "There's a small flock of wigeon on
the lake." This appears to be more common with "exotic" birds: both "There
are very few blackbird this year" and "...blackbirds..." are apparently
possible for this "dialect".

Finally, I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone say "three canteloupe" (or
am I just thinking of "three antelope"???). What to make of all this, I
don't know!

 Mike Maxwell
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue