LINGUIST List 12.1183

Mon Apr 30 2001

Sum: Mass/Count Nouns

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Lotfi, Mass/Count Nouns

Message 1: Mass/Count Nouns

Date: 29 Apr 2001 22:55:30 EDT
From: Lotfi <>
Subject: Mass/Count Nouns

Dear Linguists,
On 23 Apr 2001, I posted the query below (Vol-12-1116)
concerning mass/count nouns:
A Colleague of mine (Farzad Sharifian at Cowen University) and
I are conducting a research within the framework of cognitive
linguistics concerning mass-count nouns in Persian. We noticed
that in Persian Conversational Style, nouns that are normally
mass ones (in a language like English) can be either mass or
count depending upon the speaker's conceptualisation of the
noun in question:
1. Ab-e darya bala umad.
 water-of sea high came
 "The sea level rose"
2. Maman ab-a-ro ba dasmal ye gushe jam kard.
 Mum water-PL-DO with cloth a corner gather did
 "Mum gathered the water in a corner with a cloth"
Apparently, a count noun conceptualisation is preferred in cases the
speaker conceives of them as (a) particles/g rains/drops (scattered
about), e.g. BERENJ-A 'rices': grains of rice (b) sth parcelled into
countable units (hence, BERENJ-A 'rices' in reference to bags of
rice), (c) multi-typal interpretation: BERENJ-A 'rices'--different
rice varieties, (d) multi-locational interpretation: BERENJ-A
'rices'--rice grown in different parts of a single field/different
fields, and (e) iterative: BERENJ-A 'rices'--meals of rice cooked
on different occasion.
Do you know of similar phenomena in other languages? If I receive
enough feedback, I'll post a summary to the list.

I wish to express my gratitude to these colleagues who kindly provided
insightful comments and helpful sources on the topic:
David Scarratt
Chris Beckwith
Harumi Moore
Frank Joosten
Jila Ghomeshi
Greville Corbett
Also thanks are due to the colleague who replied as
And these are the replies as I received:
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A paper by Keith Allan in _Language_ discusses similar phenomena in

Keith Allan, 1980, "Nouns and countability", _Language_ 56, 541-567.

David Scarratt

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Similar phenomena occur in English and in Uzbek (a language heavily
influenced by Persian). Although <water> is usually a mass noun in
English, e can make it a count noun <waters> if referring to kinds
or brands of water, or to the number of orders of water (or number
of customers who need a glass of water) in a restaurant, for ex.,
"five waters at table number ten" means "five glasses of water..."
(In fact restaurant usage is often highly metaphorical, as is well
known.) Uzbek does the same thing. There is a discussion of count/
mass questions like this in an article of mine on Uzbek classifiers
in Anthropological Linguistics, 1998.

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

Anna Wierzbicka's "Oats and wheat: the fallacy of arbitrariness"
in John Haiman's "Iconicity in syntax" will be a great read. The
publisher is Benjamins (1985). 312-42.

Dr Harumi Moore
Lecturer in Japanese
School of Asian Studies
The University of Auckland

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In English, mass nouns cannot be used quite so freely as count
nouns. The general pattern, which must be part of an English-
speaker's knowledge of the language,because every so often one
hears examples of it from people or in situations that have no
other motivation, is that using a mass noun as a count noun adds
to it the meaning "a kind of". E.g. in the barbeque restaurants
in this part of the USA, the menus will offer a plate of beef, or
sausage, or chicken for a certain price, and will then add that the
customer can have "all three meats" for another dollar. But
semantically confusing other situations do arise, however.
"Milk" is clearly a mass noun, but when I am at the grocery store
with my friend and she asks me to pass five "milks" to her from the
cooler, I hand her five small bottles of milk. This may be sematically
affected by the fact that "coke" (= Coca-Cola) is a mass noun but
"a coke" means a bottle or glass containing the stuff. So the fact
that I am handing her *bottles* of milk may confuse the issue.

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* As far as I can see, in English, French and my native language
(Dutch), type b and c are very common. They are often cited in the
literature on the count-mass distinction.


e.g. Waiter, three coffees please!

e.g. Gargon, trois cafis s.v.p.!

e.g. Ober, drie koffies alsjeblieft!

The same with many other names for liquids.


e.g. Italian wines, Belgian beers

e.g. les vins blancs (= white wines)

e.g. witte wijnen (= white wines)

* Type e is unknown to me.

* In Dutch, type a is only marginally possible, I think, with a
diminutive form:

e.g. spek (= bacon, mass noun), spekjes (= bacon-PL-DIM, 'little
pieces of bacon')

(In other cases, the diminutive form may be used to distinguish
the type b and type c reading, e.g. drie bieren (= three beer-PL,
type c reading (multi-typal)) vs. drie biertjes (= three beer-PL-
DIM, type b reading (countable units))).

* Type d is also fairly marginal. Maybe what is sometimes called
"Abundanzplural" in German (e.g. Die Wasser des Rheins, litt. the
waters of the Rhine), can here be subsumed. Another example is an
area with several ponds in my neighbourhood, called 'de Zoete
Waters' (litt. the Sweet Waters) (maybe also type b reading??).

Frank Joosten


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It looks like what you are describing is count/mass coercion and,
as far as I know, every language exhibits this to a greater or
lesser degree. For example, in English, you can talk about
"three coffees" (cups of or types of) or "three rices" (orders of,
in a restaurant). Pelletier (1991:497) notes:

 whenever standard portions or standard uses for the stuff
 corresponding to a mass term have been established, one will
 find a count term for it: three beers, an ice cream, a
 finely silted mud.

(I had this quote at hand because a student of mine just turned in
a paper on count/mass coercion in Spanish - which is much freer
than in English, apparently.) As for the term 'coercion', I don't
know who came up with it or when. If you find out, I'd be
interested in knowing.

There is another, more colourful, way in which 'coercion' has been
characterized, (see Gillon on where these terms come from), namely
as the "Universal Grinder" and the "Universal Sorter". The
Universal Grinder turns count nouns into mass (as in "I walked into
the room and there was dog everywhere.") The Universal Sorter turns
mass nouns into count ("There were three rices on the table.")

Jila Ghomeshi

Linguistics Department
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, MB
(204) 4749288


Gillon, Brendan (1992) "Towards a common semantics for English
count and mass nouns," _Linguistics and Philosophy_ 15, 597-639.

Pelletier, F.J. (1991) "Mass Terms." _Handbook of Metaphysics and
Ontology_ 2, 495-499.

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

There are several examples of the recategorization of mass nouns as
count nouns in my recent "Number" (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
They can be found through the index entry 'recategorization'. In
particular, a good test for these uses (as opposed to affective uses)
is that in languages with a dual this is typically available for
recategorization but not for affective use.

Greville Corbett
Linguistic and International Studies
University of Surrey
Surrey, GU2 7XH
Great Britain

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- ----------------------------------------------------------------
For Persian-speakers, it is possible (under certain circumstances)
to conceive of one and the same event as either mass or count
construal depending upon one's cognitive orientation towards it:
(1) Roghanay-e machin dare mirize!
 oils-of car is dripping
 "The engine oil is dripping"
(In Persian, the verb does not need to agree with inanimate subject
in number.)
(an atomistic conception of oil dripping down from the car engine)
=> some sense of fluidity of the oil; oil without internal tenacity.
(2) Roghan-e machin dare mirize!
 oil-of car is dripping
 "The engine oil is dripping"
(a holistic picture of the same event but this time the speaker
conceives of oil as one single substance) => one of the components
of the car (if we can think of oil as a component of a car after all)
is to be gone, c.f. "motor-e machin dare misooze!" (The car engine is
If you have noticed similar phenomena in other languages, please
email me, and I'll post a summary to the list.
Ahmad R. Lotfi.
- ------------------------------------------------------------
 Ahmad R. Lotfi, Ph. D
 English Dept, Chair
 Azad University (Khorasgan)
 Esfahan, IRAN.
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