[Lingtyp] Lingtyp Digest, New Issue: Nominal Classifiers in IE languages

Edmond Cane ecane2000 at yahoo.com
Tue Jun 18 09:38:04 EDT 2019

 The following is a short summary of an argument I am going to present in a conference on Language Typology, in July. As I have read, the numeralclassifiers are common among languages in Asia as well as  some otherareas of the world. Indo-European languages are not evaluated as rich in suchpattern. My knowledge can be limited, so I would appreciate any comments,remarks about the matter. My main concern is how widespread this pattern is among IE languages, how (if any) these compare to other languages generally described as numeral classifier languages - and such relevant issues

Albanian with regard to nominal classifiers

Severalauthors have analyzed the numeral classifiers (NC) in typological or casestudies (Greenberg 1977, Craig 1986, Dixon 1986, Croft 1994, Seifart 2010, etc.).A large number of Asian languages (with an isolating typological profile), butalso some Caucasian, West African and American Indian languages, have been evaluated and argued as nominal classifierones based on certain features (Greenberg 1977, Aikhenvald 2000, Nichols 1992,Bisang 1996, 1999, Seifart 2010, etc.).  However,even Albanian, an IE language, is abundant with such constructions, with thefeatures as defined in the cited literature. Their use is not strictlyobligatory. Many enumerated nouns may also choose two or more alternative NCs.The choice is basically semantic and they constitute an open lexical class.

Themain function appears to have been unitizing for the purpose of quantification.Then, because of the means employed, there has been a nominal classificationimposed on the enumerated nouns. There is a clear classification of humanversus nonhumans 

Num + frymë (souls) – for people 

Num + krerë/kokë (heads) – for animals mainly for domestic animals, but alsoexpanded to other animals (less common).

Asfor inanimates, there is a wide range of NCs, generally having emerged fromusage, needs and utilitarian purposes. There is structuring based on howspeakers interact with objects:

5 barrë dru/shkarpa/qymyr, etc. – 5loads wood/kindling/coal

2 krahë dru – 2 arms  wood 

Një dorë miell/kripë/para, etc – onehand flour/salt/money 

Një grusht miell, ujë, para, etc  - a fist flour/water/money

This use could be similar to the English: a handfulof.., an armful of…, a fistful of….

Shapeand size are often the underlying cognitive factors to the emergence of some NCs

3 kokrra mollë – 3 round-shapedapples

2 pëllëmbë mustaqe – 2 palms mustache(measuring 2 palms in length)

Liquidshave their own NCs

Një bardhak/kupë ujë/qumësht – onebowl/cup of water/milk

Një kotruve ujë – one bucket water

Veryoften liquids and hard matter like sand, flour, sugar etc. have the same NC,their proper container vessels. For the same noun or set of nouns, there can bemore than one alternative, which can be a different container and generallyprovides for different size or amount.

TheNCs impose numerability on mass nouns but also on countables too (3 kokrra mollë/3 kokrra fiq/10 kokrra domateetc.). It is interesting to note that they convert even some abstract nounsto numerability 

një vorbull ere (a swirl of wind); 

një tis avulli (a soft breeze/coverof steam), 

një shkundje ere (a shake of wind)etc.

Ithas been observed even in other languages that the NCs do not simply serve thepurpose of providing for unitizing and counting of the nouns. The numeral NPsvery often involve the numeral ‘one’. It can also be seen that in some casesthe opposition underlying the presence of the NC is that of none vs. any. 

Metonymyis a very common source: breath/soulfor people, heads for cattle and someother animals, roots for trees, etc. Themost common mechanism is the metaphorical projection of certain schemas,lexical items, which already ‘carry numerability’, onto new scenes and schemas.From idiosyncratic lexical items, they spread and may become more or lessgeneric. Hence, the NCs can be considered as ‘vessels’ of numerability.

Mostof the usage underlying the NCs has almost faded away: either such vessels arenot used nowadays, or, such work is not carried out in the present. However,the pattern remains strong and large. The historical emergence and use musthave provided for the deeply embedded cognitive patterns, which accounts forthe productive spread of the NCs. The presence of several alternatives for thesame elements supports this view too. The NCs are idiosyncratic lexemes, andtheir lexical content imposes constraint on their use. However, the strength ofthe pattern seems to have encouraged the spread beyond the expected line. Thisaccounts for their expansion to abstract nouns, attempting to unitize orindividualize elements like wind, sea water, or abstract ones like pleasure,anger, work, time, etc. Some NCs have even provided for figurative collocations.

Albanianhas a rich system of NCs, but very few collective classifiers (a series of, a heap of, a pack of, etc.)– comparative to languages like English. While the NCs are highly constrained,the collective classifiers apply to large sets. The few ones open to humans,other animates as well as inanimates, (njëgrumbull …– a collection of …; një mori … - a series of …) or, for animalsand inanimates (tufë – also used forhuman, when implying brutes, primitives, uneducated), or for a wide range ofinanimates (pirg – a heap of). Eventhe existing (low-level) constraint seems to be basically due to thepre-emptive effect of the few constructions in use. 

Thetypical NCs appear in a morpho-syntactic blend, a straight juxtaposition, justlike in the numeral constructions (Num + N). There are some NCs which can appearin both, the straight blend with simple form juxtaposition or having theenumerated noun in ablative (indefinite), which is actually a simple form, andvery common in many NPs. The NCs have two forms: singular for numeral ‘one’ andplural for ‘two’ or higher. Both forms are indefinite.

Thenumeral constructions can also develop into a full inflected NP, in which caseit is not a numeral classifier NP:

Një/dy barrë dru – one/two load woods

Barra e druve – the load of woods

Hence,Albanian appears as a numeral classifier language, and this requires anexplanation considering inheritance (as an IE language) as well as the arealenvironment. In addition, Greenberg argues that the numeral classifier systemdeveloped in languages with a prior mass/unit nouns distinction. Albanian obviouslydoes not qualify as such. 

Thestrength of the pattern in Albanian can be regarded as a deeply embeddedbehavioral pattern, supported/supplied /provided for by the large number ofavailable schemas, the wide usage and the already functional needs. The largenumber of the NC constructions represent a particular combinationof semantic structure and information packaging. Thisevidence may contribute to what can belearned from classifier systems with regard to the nature of languageorganization.


Aikhenvald,Alexandra Y. 2000. Classifiers. A typology of noun categorization devices.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bisang,Walter. 1996. Areal typology and grammaticalization: processes of grammaticalizationbased on nouns and verbs in East and Mainland South East Asian languages.Studies in Language 20. 519–97.

Bisang,Walter . 1999. Classifiers in East and Southeast Asian languages. Counting andbeyond. Numeral types and changes worldwide, ed. by Jadranka Gvozdanovı´c,113–85. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, Trends in

Linguistics. Studies and Monographs 118.

Croft,William. 1990. Typology and universals. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress.

Croft, William (1994) Semantic universals inclassifier systems, Word, 45:2,145-171,

Croft,William. 2014. Grammatical categories, semantic classes and informationpackaging. Draft chapter of book project Morphosyntax: Constructions of theworld’s languages. http://www.unm.edu/~wcroft/Papers/Morphosyntax-ch1-Jan14.pdf.

Greenberg,J.  (1972) Numeral Classifiers andSubstantival Number: Problems in the Genesis of a Linguistic Type. Workingpapers on Language universals, No. 9..1-40, 

Haspelmath,Martin. 2010a. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguisticstudies. Language 86. 663–687.

Nichols,Johanna. 1992. Linguistic diversity in space and time. Chicago: University ofChicago Press. 

Seifart, F. (2010). Nominalclassification. Language and linguistics compass, 4(8),719-736.

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lingtyp/attachments/20190618/7676c462/attachment.html>

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list