LINGUIST List 4.285

Wed 21 Apr 1993

Sum: Number Markedness

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  1. Paul T Kershaw, Summary: Number markedness

Message 1: Summary: Number markedness

Date: Tue, 20 Apr 93 3:10:50 EDTSummary: Number markedness
From: Paul T Kershaw <>
Subject: Summary: Number markedness

This is a summary of the query I posted last week. I would like to thank
everybody who responded, to wit: Zev Bar-Lev, Aaron Broadwell, Alan Cienki,
Matthew Dryer, Kathy Eberhard, David Gil, Heidi Harley, Almerindo Ojeda, Luiz
Arthur Pagani, John Paolillo, David Powers, Don Ringe, Agurtzane Elordui
Urkiza, Wlodek Zadrozny, and one anonymous commentator.

The query requested an example of a language containing a phonetically null
plural morpheme and a phonetically overt singular morpheme or, lacking that, a
language in which both the singular and the plural (and all other number
affixes) are phonetically overt. The query was inspired by a problem of
Ojeda's (1993) analysis, in comparison to Link's (1983) analysis, of semantic
number. Link provides a function which generates from a set of atomic entities
(i.e., singular) to a set of atomistic entities (roughly, plural), while Ojeda
provides a function which selects the set of atomic elements from the set of
atomistic ones. In answer to Powers' question, these functions are intended to
be universal (as I read them), although Ojeda suggests that the choice of one
or the other might be a parameter between languages (1993: 78-79). Link hence
treats the singular as unmarked; Ojeda, the plural.

Link's analysis is bolstered by the fact that it matches the morphological
behavior which Greenberg (1966, 28) claims is universal: "The singular
frequently has no overt mark while the plural is marked by affix as in English,
except for plurals of the type 'sheep'. A more careful statement would
therefore be that in no language is the plural expressed by a morpheme which
has no overt allomorph, while this is frequently true for the singular."
(quote provided by Eberhard: complete reference not given) Ojeda's analysis,
then, would be bolstered by any examples of the opposite behavior, of the type
I queried for.

I received several different examples of linguistic behavior, none of which
provided a language which always displayed the behavior sought, but which
nonetheless weaken Greenberg's universal and/or create problems for Link.

First of all, in Polish (Zadrozny) and Russian (Bar-Lev, Cienki) some nouns,
but not all (Zadrozny is unclear on this point), exhibit a phonetically null
plural. There are three numbers in these languages (and in Ukrainian, which I
know something about): singular, paucal, and plural. The singular is used for
one, the paucal for two/three/four, and the plural for five-twenty. At
twenty-one, the cycle is repeated, although the way the cycle repeats differs
between languages (at least, it appears to). At any rate, in Russian, genitive
feminine and neutur nouns have affixes only on singular and paucal; e.g.:
 odno jabloko, dva jabloka, pjat' jablok
 one apple, two apples, five apples
(data from Cienki). Other nouns, though, exhibit the opposite behavior:
 odin dom, dva doma, p'at' domov
 one house, two houses, five houses
(data from Bar-Lev). The issue is further complicated by the fact that these
morphemes are, after all, fusional (as Ringe notes).

Some languages apparently have phonetically null plural morphemes for a special
set of nouns which are somehow inherently plural. This ought to be
distinguished, or so I suss, from mass nouns in that the inherently pluarl
nouns can be given singular readings through affixation, which mass nouns (in
English) can't. Two examples of languages with this phenomenon are British
Celtic (Ringe) and Kiowa (Broadwell). In British Celtic, the class of nouns
affected is, roughly speaking, "those that occur more often in the pl[ural]".
The affix which makes these nouns singular differs from noun to noun. In
Kiowa, number is lexical, and the suffix /ga/ reverses the number (making
singulars plural and plurals singular). Kiowa is indeed an interesting case,
since it jeopardizes even Ojeda compromisory theory of parametricization (as
Broadwell notes). The facts of Kiowa, however, are further confounded by the
presence of a dual which interacts in an unspecified way with the above system.

A third type of phenomenon is present in (certain dialects of) Arabic (Gil,
Anon.). In this case, the morphologically unmarked member is neither the
singular nor the plural but rather the collective (for a small class of nouns).
 That is:
 (1) singular N-a
 (2) plural N-iet
 (3) collective N
(affixes from Maltese, provided by Gil). The collective type is, as Gil
asserts, properly speaking a non-singular, i.e., either plural or mass. This
is an intersting situation indeed, in light of English, where the mass terms
typically behave like singulars (i.e., with non-overt number and with singular
verb argument: Spaghetti is..., *Spaghetti are...). Gil further reports that
Grev Corbett has data of African languages with the pattern:
 (1) singular N-x
 (2) plural N-y
 (3) "general" N
where "general" is semantically unmarked for number.

Two other languages were mentioned. Sinhala (Paolillo) inanimate nouns have no
overt affix in the singular, while the singular affix is -a and the indefinite
affix (available only in sg.) is -k. This pattern does not carry through to
the animates, where all three noun types (plur, sg.def., sg.indef.) have
endings. Basque (Urkiza) has endings for both singular and plural, but the
affixless stem is used when specific number terms are used:
 txakura dog
 txakurak dogs
 txakur bat one dog
 txakur bi two dogs
 hiru txakur three dogs
This calls to mind the issue of Morphological Blocking, as in Andrews (see bib

Bibliography: In addition to the above information, several sources were
offered. I give these here (with all the information that was given), along
with the complete references to Ojeda and Link (which I apologize for not
giving in the original query) and Andrews above.

Andrews, A. 1990 Unification and morphological blocking. Natural Language
and Linguistic theory 8: 507-557.

Croft, William 1990 Typology, U of Cambridge Press

Gair 1970 Colloquial Sinhalese Clause Structures, Mouton

Gair, Fairbanks, and DeSilva 1968 Colloquial Sinhalese (Sinhala), Cornell
University South Asia Program

Lewis, Henry and Holger Pedersen 3d Ed, English trans. of Pedersen below

Link, G. 1983 The logical analysis of plurals and mass terms: A
lattice-theoretical approach." In R. Bauerle, C. Schwartze, and A. von Stechow
(eds.) Meaning, Use, and Interpretation of Language. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Noyer, Rolf 1992 Dissertation, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics

Ojeda, A. 1993 Linguistic Individuals. CSLI Lecture notes 31

Paolillo, John C. 1992 Functional Articulation in Diglossia: A case study of
grammatical and social correspondences in sinhala. Dissertation. UMI, Ann

Pedersen, Holger 19?? Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprache

Watkins, Laurel ca. 1984 Grammar of Kiowa. Nebraska
Wurzel, W. U. 1989 Inflectional Morphology and Naturalness. Dordrecht: Reidel
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