ELL: Re: 'Reburial of 500 Huron'...

Jeffrey Harlig harligj at INDIANA.EDU
Wed Dec 8 17:27:47 UTC 1999

I don't agree that the zero-plural form of certain ethnonyms is directly
related to "game" or other non-human uses of this construction. But I
certainly do feel that it is a special form that derives from English usage
when these terms first came to be used and therefore marks these ethnonyms
(note: the lexical items, not their referents) as archaic and thus,
essentially, not within the sphere of modern English.  The usage marks the
words as exclusionary--maybe that's racist and maybe it's not, but it's not
desirable. So for that reason our usage should probably be changed.

I'm afraid Victor Golla is not right in saying that the form can be used only
with western-hemisphere groups. We can also say "20 Zulu/Xhosa/Bantu" (yes, I
know no one is "a Bantu" in modern terminology, but think of some Tarzan-type
story where this could certainly be said). Likewise, it is possible to use
"Manchu" or "Han" in the zero-plural form. Same goes for "Uzbek" and "Uigur."
Or: "there are hundreds of Lao/Hmong living in Chicago." This point is
confirmed by the American Heritage Dictionary (probably others, too), which
lists zero-plurals as well as regular -s plurals as possibilities for these
words. I'm sure others can come up with other examples from around the world.

I'm inclined to lay part of the blame for the behavior of these terms on the
fact that (almost all) of them are not of a clearly identifiable part of
speech in English; they were imported without being anglicized grammatically
so that they would, in fact, be English adjectives, as all "mainstream"
ethnonyms are (via -(i)an, -ese, and -i [e.g., Farsi, Iraqi, Afghani]). I
would not rule out the possibility that these words are indeed regarded by at
least some speakers as adjectives or for some other reason simply
indeclinable. It is surely the case that there is idiosyncratic variation in
whether individuals regard these terms as adjectives or (derived) nouns. But I
also wouldn't exclude, of course, idiosyncratic variation in individuals'
*feelings about the referents* (even if only at a subconscious level) as
determining usage. However, these feelings can be everything from "This group
ranks low on the humanity scale"--relatively egregious--to "This group ranks
high on the unfamiliarity scale"--relatively innocuous.

(By the way: How about "They encountered a group of Farsi/Afghani/Iraqi in the
mountains"? This tests at least one [marginal] adjectival form's sensitivity
to zero-plurality vs. regular plural formation.)

I'm sure the question and range of usage is far more complex than this.

Jeff Harlig

Victor Golla wrote:

> 12/8/99
> Gary Ingle writes:
> >  But then, I can imagine
> > (at least grammatically) going "out after Mongol" but "shooting 20
> > Mongol" also sounds unnatural.  What exactly is going on here?
> To me, the most curious aspect of the dehumanizing zero-plural is
> that it appears to be used exclusively -- and universally -- with
> the names of American Indian tribes (North, Central, and South), but
> not with ethnonyms from any other part of the world.  So, while
> "shooting 20 Mongol" is ungrammatical (in probably all our dialects)
> "shooting 20 Apache" or "shooting 20 Quechua" is just fine (as far
> as grammaticality goes).  The covert classification is geographical
> and cosmological, not socio-cultural.  The Tasmanians were
> every bit as culturally marginal as the Yaghan, but while you can
> "go shooting some Yaghan" you definitely can't "go shooting some
> Tasmanian."  I am quite amazed that this selectional distinction has
> been lying nestled in my English competence all these years, entirely
> unnoticed by me.

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