classifier query

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sun Oct 14 19:11:42 UTC 2001

Dear all,

Is anybody familiar with an example of diachronic change in which a
numeral classifier becomes reanalyzed as the numeral "one"?


One could imagine two plausible scenarios for such a reanalysis to take place.

(a) In some numeral classifier languages, such as Cantonese and
Vietnamese, a classifier may occur with a noun but without a numeral;
in such cases, the resulting construction is generally interpreted as
singular.  The singular semantics of such constructions could plausibly
lead to the classifier being reinterpreted as the numeral "one".

(b) In some numeral classifier languages, a collocation of numeral plus
classifier has become reinterpreted as involving a simple numeral, the
erstwhile classifier having been bleached of its classificatory
function.  For example, the Malay numeral _satu_ "one" derives from
_*@sa_ "one" plus _*batu_ "stone", the latter form functioning as a
classifier.  One could thus imagine such a development being followed by
the phonological weakening and eventual disappearance of the numeral
"one", resulting in what was once a classifier becoming interpreted as a
numeral "one".

So I wonder: has this ever happened?  (Reason I'm asking is that I have
a potential example of this, but I'd like to get a feel for whether this
is an otherwise attested path of grammaticalization.)

Looking forward to your reactions,

David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-9952321
Fax: 49-341-9952119
Email: gil at

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