Corbett, Greville G. (2000) Number. Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics, xx+358 pages.
Reviewed by Tania Avgustinova, Saarland University
Representing an "example of the approach to typology which
examines categories rather than constructions", this book
investigates the theoretical challenge of grammatical
number paradigms both within a particular language and
cross-linguistically. As only a thorough study of
typologically quite diverse systems could reveal the real
picture, Corbett's main methodological concern throughout
the book is to ensure that one compares "like with like",
and that the claims related to meaning are clearly
distinguished from those related to the means of
expression. On the basis of data from an impressive amount of
languages, the author convincingly shows the complexity and
diversity of a grammatical category that has often been
The work is organized thematically, with each chapter
illustrating a particular typological point, and can
certainly be used as "a hands-on introduction to typology".
The references part (pp. 299-342) offers a rich
bibliography on number-related topics. The main texts is
preceded by lists of figures, tables and abbreviations (pp.
xii-xx), and followed by author, language and subject
indices (pp. 343-358).
The introductory Chapter 1 (pp.1-8) begins with questioning
five common assumptions which have lead to an
underestimation of the grammatical category of number,
namely, that number is just an opposition of singular vs.
plural, that all relevant items will mark number, that
items which do mark number will behave the same, that
number must be expressed, and that number is a nominal
In the next two chapters, the grammatical category of
number is considered along two typologically relevant
dimensions. Chapter 2 ("Meaning Distinctions", pp. 9-53)
focuses on number values available to a given noun or
pronoun. To give a typology of possible number systems
Corbett considers the Number Hierarchy (singular > plural
> dual > trial), replacing it with a "binary-branching"
classification, which allows him to include the "paucal"
and "greater plural" in the typology as well as to account
for facultative number. Chapter 3 ("Items involved in the
nominal number system", pp. 54-88) focuses on the
distribution of a given number value over types of
nominals. The observable patterns of variation appear to be
systematically constrained by the Animacy Hierarchy. The
number distinction in a given language is expected to
affect a top segment of the Animacy Hierarchy
(speaker/1person > addressee/2person > 3person > kin >
human > animate > inanimate). Informally, the more animate
a nominal is the more likely it is to show number.
Having established the number values which languages may
have, on the one hand, and the possible patterns of
involvement in the number system, on the other hand, the
author combines those two aspects in Chapter 4
("Integrating number values and the Animacy Hierarchy", pp.
89-132) attempting a typology of what number values are
possible for what nominals. The construction of this
typology requires addressing the issues of the complexity
added by "minor numbers", "associatives" and
"distributives/collectives", among others. The Animacy
Hierarchy regulating, originally, the singular-plural
choice is extended here to other number values, thus
predicting, e.g., that a dual-plural division would be
similarly constrained to involve some top segment of the
Chapter 5 ("The expression of number", pp. 133-177) looks
at the ways in which number is expressed, with morphology
providing, of course, the greatest variety. Obvious
candidates like special number words, syntax and lexical
means are also considered. Furthermore, some systems
unusual in terms of number marking are discussed.
Chapter 6 ("The syntax of number", pp. 178-218) is mainly
dedicated to agreement phenomena involving number, but also
includes a discussion of problems caused by numerals. Here
Corbett employs a fairly traditional "controller-target"
concept of agreement: "We shall call the element which
determines the agreement (say the subject noun phrase) the
controller. The element whose form is determined by
agreement is the target." Distinguishing semantic and
syntactic agreement, Corbett proposes a universal
constraint on possible agreement patterns. In particular,
agreement is more semantically justified the farther to the
right the target is on the Agreement Hierarchy (attributive
< predicate < relative pronoun < personal pronoun). Special
attention is paid to agreement controllers consisting of
conjoined noun phrases, as these typically give rise to two
agreement strategies: resolution or partial agreement with
a designated conjunct. Another non-trivial case considered
by Corbett is the agreement with quantified expressions
(mainly in Slavic).
Chapter 7 ("Other uses of number", pp. 219-242) contains a
discussion of honorifics and other special cases which are
not understandable as straightforward uses of the relevant
number value. A less well known number type which relates
to events, rather than to entities, is the topic of Chapter
8 ("Verbal number", pp. 243-264). It obviously correlates
with verbal aspect, and yet is claimed to be a clearly
distinct category. Two sub-types of verbal number are
distinguished, namely, event number and participant number.
In the concluding Chapter 9 ("Conclusion and new
challenges", pp. 265-298) a variety of further topics is
dealt with, including the diachronic rise and decline of
number, the interactions with other grammatical categories
like gender, case, person, definiteness, the use of number
with respect to frequency and irregularity, the acquisition
and the psycholinguistics of number.
This book is a good example of conscientious linguistic
research and pedagogically skilled presentation. It will
become a useful resource for students and researchers
investigating particular languages as well as language
groups. Corbett's work is a valuable contribution
to the typological literature.
[no biographical statement provided, eds.]