number marking in Basque

Alan R. King mccay at REDESTB.ES
Sat Nov 7 00:28:36 UTC 1998

My long-time friend and colleague Lourdes Oñederra wrote, within the
present discussion of number marking in NPs:

>Singular in Basque is morphologically (morphotactically) marked vs the
>indefinite, which is unmarked (Merkmalloss) and used with
>numerals and WH words. In some cases (e.g. genitive) it is "more marked
than the plural.

This appears possibly to contradict my statements in another recent post in
the same discussion, and so good sportsmanship would seem to require that I
defend my honour  :-)  and state my own case, which was left largely
implicit the first time round.  Since I think some of you out there might
be mildly interested in the issue(s), I shall do this here, while
attempting to keep the discussion at a level where it is accessible to all.

I'm not sure if I actually asserted that in Basque NP marking, the plural
is marked in contrast to the singular, which is unmarked, but I probably
implied it.  And I happen to disagree with the (in Basque grammars widely
accepted) view that all grammatical numbers are marked.  So there are two
complexly interrelated questions to resolve:

(a) Is the plural MARKED vis-à-vis the (relatively UNmarked) singular?
I think so; Lourdes' remarks may suggest otherwise.

(b) Are BOTH singular and plural MARKED vis-à-vis something else (neither
singular nor plural) which is UNmarked?
Lourdes says yes, I have my doubts.


In my description, I referred to a plural marker that is fused with the
(usually) obligatorily-present determiner.  I talked about a plural marker
because I don't think there is any corresponding singular marker.  The two
examples I gave of number marking on determiners were: singular -A, plural
-AK (default determiner), and singular HURA, plural HAIEK 'that/those'.
Here the fusion is most obvious, but we also have e.g. singular HAU, plural
HAUEK 'this/these', suggesting perhaps a plural morpheme (?)-EK, which is
also seen in the pronouns singular ZU vs. plural ZUEK 'you'.

The above examples are all in the absolutive (unmarked) case, and when case
morphemes are added (suffixed to the above), the surface forms differ.
Lourdes mentioned case forms in which the singular actually contains more
phonological material than the plural, e.g. the default determiner in the
genitive case is singular -AREN, plural -EN.  My view is that this is no
more significant than, say, the observation that in the nominative of
second declencion nouns in Latin the singular is longer than the plural
(masculine -US versus -I, neuter -UM versus -A).  Furthermore, there exist
morphological analyses (synchronic or diachronic) of the Basque endings
which imply that even in the present example the plural contains more
"material" than the singular in their underlying or source forms.  The
argument is well-known to Basque specialists, and can be summed up for the
non-Basque-specialist something like this (-A singular determiner; *-AG
plural determiner; -EN genitive morpheme; -R- epenthetic consonant):

*-A + -EN  -->  -A-R-EN  -->  -aren (dialectal variants -ain, -an)
*-AG + -EN  -->  *-AG-EN  -->  *-AEN  -->  -en (dial. var. -an)

Personally I don't have much of a taste for the generalized positing of
abstract underlying forms such as *-ag unless highly motivated in
particular instances, and I don't believe this Basque underlying form
specifically is all THAT strongly motivated synchronically, but it gets
repeated in the literature, so there we are.  In any event, the singular is
in no case *morphologically* more complex than the singular (unlike Welsh
forms like madarch-en 'mushroom (sg.)').

Most twentieth-century Basque grammars build on a doctrine that says (in
one variant at least) that Basque nouns (actually noun phrases) have three
forms, called indefinite, singular and plural.  In the absolutive
(unmarked) case, these have the endings zero (indefinite), -A (singular),
-AK (plural).  This is the background to Lourdes' statement "Singular in
Basque is ... marked vs the indefinite".  My own analysis, which differs,
was given in my previous posting: -A and -AK are the forms of the default
determiner, i.e. that which is obligatorily used in the absence of other
(marked) determiners (or quantifiers), since there is a general rule that
Basque NPs must contain a determiner.  Compare:

gizon-A 'man'
gizon-AK 'men'
gizon HURA 'that man'
gizon ASKO 'many men'
HIRU gizon 'three men'

It is crucial to note that the first, *gizon, is not a well-formed noun
phrase because there's no determiner [except in certain strictly limited
uses, notably as a predicate in e.g.:

Gizon bihurtu zen. 'She turned into a man.'

which tends to be problematic in other languages too].

I reject the idea (standard in present-day grammars) that gizon-A is in a
marked relationship vis-à-vis unmarked *gizon, for the fundamental reason
that gizon-A isn't in ANY paradigmatic relationship vis-à-vis *gizon, and
this because gizon-A is a noun phrase while *gizon isn't (it's just a
lexeme).  And I would further argue that since *gizon is only a lexeme, it
doesn't make sense to ask whether it is singular, plural, both or neither.
The contrast, then, is not between "indefinite" *gizon and singular
gizon-A, but only between singular gizon-A and plural gizon-AK, or between
gizon-A/AK 'man/men' with the unmarked determiner, and gizon HURA 'that
man' or HIRU gizon 'three men' with marked determiners.

I also suggest applying a similar analysis, mutatis mutandis, to other
languages with obligatory determiners, such as Hawaiian:

*keiki (not a NP)
ke/na: keiki 'child/children' (unmarked determiner)
ke:la: keiki 'that child' (marked determiner)
kekahi keiki 'a certain child' (ditto)
ke:la: mau keiki 'those children' (marked determiner, and marked for plural)

To end let me say once more that Lourdes' statement, not mine, is in line
with currently accepted Basque grammatical teaching.  I am the upstart, as

All the best,

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