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LINGUIST List 19.1497

Tue May 06 2008

Sum: Overt Markers on Mass Nouns

Editor for this issue: Catherine Adams <catherinlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Michael Barrie, Overt Markers on Mass Nouns

Message 1: Overt Markers on Mass Nouns
Date: 04-May-2008
From: Michael Barrie <mibarrieinterchange.ubc.ca>
Subject: Overt Markers on Mass Nouns
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Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 19.1421
Thanks for the many responses on the topic of count/mass marking on nouns. 
The issue, in short, centres around the following observations. In English,
mass nouns and singular nouns are typically marked the same (zero) in
opposition to plurals (-s).

a glass
some glass
these glasses

A small number of nouns mark plural and mass the same in opposition to

a brain
some brains (John has the brains required to get this job done)
these brains (The space alien has three brains)

The question, then, is there ever a marker specific to mass nouns, in
opposition to count and singular?

Thanks to the following respondents, in no particular order:

Sarah Harmon, Greville Corbett, Elisabeth Stark, Werner Abraham, Benjamin
Bruening, Marijke De Belder, Mike Cahill, Andrew Nevins, Alan Simcock, Mark
A. Mandel, Charles Häberl, Will Bennett, Johannes Reese, Cristina Matute

The following is a much abridged summary of the relevant facts with a

Asturian Spanish pronominals (Corbett, 2000:124-146, García González, 1979)

3rd sing fem – la
3rd sing masc – lu
3rd mass masc – lo

see also: http://pidweb.ii.uam.es/coser/contenido.php?es&publicaciones

South-Central Italian (Rohlfs, 1966:108-110)

“uncountable” nouns
lo vinu, lə vinə “wine”
lo sale, rə ssalə, lə salə “salt”
lo mèlle, o méle, lo méle, u mméla “honey”
lo latte, o latte, lə lattə “milk”

“countable” nouns
ru cane “dog”
ru peʃʃu “singular fish”
u jóvitu “elbow”
u lópe “wolf”

references on other Romance languages: (Hualde, 1992, Penny, 1970)

See Corbett (2000:173) for languages where mass nouns take plural rather
than singular morphology (and a few languages where there is a split)

Swedish (Delsing, 1993)

a few nouns with three forms: singular, plural and ‘uncountable’.

French Partitives/Indefinites

du/de la – only with mass nouns
(d’)un/(d’)une – only with singular count nouns
des – only with plural count nouns

see also Chierchia (1998)

Breton singulatives (Acquaviva, 2008)

link between transnumerals and mass nouns (Abraham, 2007, Acquaviva, 2008)

Arabic has a semi-productive marker of the distinction. With many nouns,
the mass of them is referred to with the masculine singular (zero marking):
tufaaH ‘apple-kind (as generic, mass)’. You add the feminine singular to
get a single countable apple: tufaaH-a ‘apple’. You use the feminine
plural to count more than one: tufaaH-aat ‘apples’.

link between diminutives and countability in Dutch (Belder, 2008a, b)

Many African languages with a specific noun class for mass nouns (Cahill, 2007)

In Welsh, the plural of nouns is usually formed by the addition of one of a
number of affixes (-au, -i, -ydd, -oedd and so on), or by some internal
ablaut or by both (eg afon (river), afonydd (rivers); gŵr (man), gwyr
(men); or bws (bus), bysiau (buses)).

There are also, however, a group of nouns where the base form is the
plural, and the singular is formed by the addition of an affix. For
example, adar (birds) but aderyn (a bird); moch (pigs) but mochyn (a pig);
plant (children) but plentyn (a child).

This group is not large, but the items are ones where it is perhaps more
common to talk about the collectivity that the individuals, and may
therefore suggest that there was some concept of a mass noun in place.

The second phenomenon is from Classical Greek (it has disappeared in Modern
Greek). This is the use of the third person singular of the verb in
agreement with a neuter plural subject noun (eg (in transcription ''tà kalà
tè:n psykhè:n euphraìnei (eg ''Fine things gladden the soul'' Plato,
Laches 187). This unusual feature has been explained as a reflection of an
origin of the neuter plural as a (feminine) collective noun (in Classical
Greek, neuter plural (nominative and accusative) usually end in -a, which
is one of the more common endings of the feminine nominative singular -
though in some dialects it becoms -e: except where preceeded by a vowel or
a rho.

Nomen unitatis in Semitic: Semitic languages have two grammatical genders
(masculine and feminine) of which the former is morphologically unmarked
and the latter is generally marked. The most common ''feminine'' morpheme
in Semitic languages takes the form -at or -t. This same morpheme is also
used to indicate a single member of a class of collectives. This is
regular in Arabic, where the -at form of the morpheme has been generalized,
e.g. šajar-un ''trees (coll.)'' and šajar-at-un ''a tree,'' but note the
plural form ?ashj?r-un ''trees (pl.);'' waraq-un ''paper (coll.)'' and
waraq-at-un ''a (piece of) paper,'' ?awr?q-un ''papers (pl.),'' and also
occasionally attested in other Semitic languages (Syriac dukk-? ''region''
but dukk-?-? ''a place;'' Hebrew ?e??r ''hair'' but ?a?ar-? ''a hair;'' Akk
?all?r-um ''chick peas'' but ?all?r-t-um ''one chick pea'').

concept of mass nouns in Chinese languages – including Cantonese ‘di1’, 啲,
which appears only on mass nouns and bare plurals (Yeung, 2007)


Abraham, Werner. 2007. Nominal determination – the uniqueness-anaphor split
and transnumerals vs. mass nouns. Ms. Vienna.
Acquaviva, Paolo. 2008. Lexical Plurals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Belder, Marijke De. 2008a. Size Matters: Towards a syntactic decomposition
of countability. Paper presented at GLOW, Newcastle University.
Belder, Marijke De. 2008b. Kinds and units in the Dutch DP. Ms.
Cahill, Michael. 2007. Aspects of the Morphology and Phonology of Konni.
Dallas, TX: SIL Publications.
Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to Kinds across Languages. Natural
Language Semantics 6:339-405.
Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Delsing, Lars Olaf. 1993. The internal structure of noun phrases in the
Scandinavian languages: a comparative study. Ms. Lund: Department of
Scandinavian Languages, University of Lund.
García González, Francisco. 1979. Los pronombres personales en el oriente
de Asturias. In Estudios y trabayos del seminariu de llingua asturiana II.
Oviedo, Asturias: Universida d'Uvieu Serviciu Publicaciones.
Hualde, Jose Ignacio. 1992. Metaphony and count/mass morphology in Asturian
and Cantabrian dialects. In Theoretical Analyses in Romance Linguistics,
eds. Christiane Laeufer and Terrell A. Morgan, 99-114. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Penny, Ralph, J. 1970. Mass-nouns and metaphony in the dialects of
North-Western Spain. Archivum Linguisticum 1:21-30.
Rohlfs, Gerhard. 1966. Grammatica storica della lingua italiana e dei suoi
dialetti. Turin: Giulio Einaudi.
Yeung, Ben Au. 2007. Cantonese classifier di1 and genericity. In Studies in
Cantonese Linguistics II, 1-16. Hong Kong: The Linguistic Society of Hong Kong.

Linguistic Field(s): Morphology

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