LINGUIST List 12.1357

Thu May 17 2001

Review: Corbett, Number (2nd review)

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  • Tania Avgustinova, Review: Corbett, Number

    Message 1: Review: Corbett, Number

    Date: Wed, 16 May 2001 11:30:27 +0200
    From: Tania Avgustinova <taniaCoLi.Uni-SB.DE>
    Subject: Review: Corbett, Number


    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 underestimated.

    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 category.

    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 hierarchy.

    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.]