Questionnaire: numerical approximation

Frans Plank Frans.Plank at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE
Wed Aug 1 10:25:42 UTC 2001

Dear colleagues,

we are trying to collect crosslinguistic information on a topic often
ignored in grammars:  how to express approximative numerical values as
opposed to precise ones.  One reason why this is often given short shrift
in grammars is that the notion of numerical approximation is not always
strongly grammaticalized (especially when numerals themselves aren't such a
cultural priority in the first place).  What is common are such imprecise
numerical expressions as "some", "many", "a few", "a handful", "lots of",
"countless",  "I don't know how many", which don't need the company of a
numeral, or also inherently imprecise numerals (e.g., "umpteen", "x",
"myriad").  What we are primarily interested in are forms rendering precise
numerals approximative, especially those of a more strongly grammaticalized
kind:  bound morphology on numerals (e.g. "six-ish", "sixty-odd chickens",
"dozen-s"), function words ("some/about/around six chickens", "a good ten
kilometers"), special syntactic constructions ("a chicken or two/*two
chickens or three", "six or so chickens", asyndetic juxtaposition of
numerals as in pseudo-English "five six chickens").

To complement our current findings, we'd appreciate it if you'd provide us
with relevant information for languages that you know well enough.

The following (and also attached) questionnaire has two parts.  The first
asks for renderings in "your" language of a set of English examples, the
second for assistance in making sense of them.  Perhaps, in light of Part
2, you'd like to return to Part 1 and add further renderings.

Filling in the questionnaire takes from some 15 minutes to about an (*one)
hour.  Sometimes it takes weeks to recall more recherche manners of
numerical approximation.

References to relevant literature are most welcome too.

Thanks for your help.  We'll report back in due course.

Frans Plank et al.
1 August 2001

Email:	frans.plank at
Fax:  	+49-(0)7531-88.4190
Mail:	Sprachwissenschaft, Universit├Ąt Konstanz, D-78457 Konstanz, Germany

Questionnaire on Approximative Numbers

your name and address:

language described (dialect, if appropriate):


Give idiomatic renderings of the following English expressions, and gloss
relevant parts as far as possible.  Im English we are using "approximately
NUMERAL (NOUN)" as a neutral way of expressing the meaning "not much/many
more nor much less/many fewer than NUMERAL (NOUN)".  Give all semantically
equivalent expressions in "your" language that come to your mind
spontaneously or upon reflection (or upon working through Part 2), and do
not feel constrained by the English syntactic model of an adverbial
approximative expression.

Skip examples if they would only cause needless repetition.

There frequently are further approximative expressions for notions like "at
most NUM", "(not much) less/more than NUM", "at least NUM";  if aware of
them, please provide them also.

(1)  Three chickens escaped.

(2)  Hundred chickens escaped.

(3)  Thirty three chickens escaped.

(4)  Approximately three chickens escaped.

 (5)  Approximately three or four chickens escaped.

(6)  Approximately eighty or ninety chickens escaped.

(7)  Approximately hundred chickens escaped.

(8)  Approximately thirty three chickens escaped.

(9)  How many chickens escaped? -- Three.

(10)  How many chickens escaped? -- Approximately three.

(11)  The bus/boat arrived at three o'clock.

(12)  The bus/boat arrived at noon.

(13)  The bus/boat arrived at approximately three o'clock.

(14)  The bus/boat arrived approximately at noon.

(15)  The fish weighed/was six pounds.  (or whatever weight unit)

(16)  The fish weighed/was approximately six pounds.

(17)  The tree is twelve meters high.

(18)  The tree is approximately twelve meters high.

(19)  The chicken costs/is four dollars.  (or whatever currency)

(20)  The chicken costs/is approximately four dollars.

(21)  Mother is sixty five years old.

(22)  Mother is approximately sixty five years old.

(23)  [construct further examples illustrating typical uses of
approximative numbers not covered above]


Do the forms or constructions used for numerical approximation have other
uses in the language? (synchronically--or if only diachronically, and you
are aware of this, please mention it also)
Enter the forms from the translations above in the respective rubrics, and
perhaps comment briefly.

(a1)  No:  the form (morphology/syntax or lexical item) is dedicated to
this one use

(a2)  No:  it is a special approximative numeral (like English "myriad",
"umpteen", "x", or German "zig")

(b)  (non-exclusive) Disjunction of elements other than numerals (e.g., "or")

(c)  If asyndetic juxtaposition is used for numerical approximation, can
the disjunctive connective also be omitted in ordinary disjunction?

(d)  Local relations (e.g., "in the region of", "close to", "near", "around")

(e)  Movement (e.g., "coming", "going")

(f)  Temporal relations (e.g., "simultaneously")

(g)  Indefiniteness (indefinite article or pronoun, free-choice indef;
e.g. "a hundred", "thirty whatever")

(h)  Mid-scalar quantifier ("some")

 (i)  Numeral "one" (in construction with the relevant numeral:  "one
thirty" = "approximately 30"))

(j)  Indefinite amount term (e.g., deictic "so")

(k)  Interrogative (e.g., "how many")

(l)  Negation (e.g., "No ten chickens survived" = "somewhat fewer than ten")

(m)  Definiteness (def article; "the thirty")

(n)  Quantitative comparison of inequality ("more/less")

(o)  Comparison of equality (e.g., "like")

(p)  Grading, attenuation, diminution, etc. (e.g., as in English "six-ish",
like "green-ish")

(q)  Collective (e.g. "a hundred-ship")

(r)  Plural (e.g., "hundred-s")

(s)  Multiplication  (e.g., "a tenfold")

(t)  Proximative, Action Narrowly Averted (e.g., "almost", "nearly", "be
about to")

(u)  Tense: Future, or Past

(v)  Non-finite verb morphology (participle, converb)

(w)  Uncertainty or also certainty (e.g., "don't know", "certainly",
"cannot guarantee")

(x)  Positive evaluation (e.g., "a good three kilometers")

(y)  Generic designation of odd numbers (e.g., "fifty-odd")

(z)  Precise number which is culturally designated as also having
approximative meaning (e.g., "a hundred times")

(aa)  Others

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