classifiers and ligatures

Alan R. King mccay at REDESTB.ES
Sat Nov 7 01:16:10 UTC 1998

David Gil says:

>There is a very easy semantic diagnostic to distinguish classifiers from
>non-classifier ligatures in Chinese languages (and elsewhere).
>Classifiers are *inherently singular*; in the absence of an overt plural
>quantifier (such as a numeral), the interpretation of an NP containiong
>a classifier is invariably singular.

Good point, though it would be nice to know if the diagnostic is
universally feasible.

It is borne out in Kiribati (a Micronesian language with numeral
classifiers), by the fact that different people and things are counted by
means of NUMERAL + CLASSIFIER complexes (as in Japanese), but that for the
numeral 'one' the form used looks like it contains the classifier preceded
by the ARTICLE (or rather, unmarked determiner - once again!), so for
example men are counted as follows: "the-animate", "two-animate",

(Okay, the article TE is only used with singulars in Kiribati, and so it
could be counter-argued that the form TEMANNA ought to be glossed not
"the-animate" but "", or "an-animate" for that matter.  But
I still like the example.  By the way, Kiribati is in this respect a
language in which singular actually is marked, in terms of phonological and
morphological material, vis-à-vis plural (if that is what we were looking
for; I suspect it actually wasn't), since the default article is singular
TE, plural zero: 

te aomata "a/the man"
aomata "men"

This reminds one of Samoan, which also has a definite article that is zero
in the plural.  But that's another story.)

Your idea is also supported by things like the fact that in Cantonese 'this
man' (singular) is expressed as "this CLASSIFIER man", which cannot mean
'these men'.  Since, as you say, the word for 'man' on its own can have
singular or plural reference as a noun phrase, the singular-only meaning of
the expression does not arise from the "man" part so it must come from the
classifier, somehow.

I'm only a bit wary of your formulation, when you say "Classifiers are
*inherently singular*".  If in an imaginary language verbs lacking a tense
marker express the past and for other tenses explicit markers are added,
are that language's verbs "inherently past"?  The inherent feature of
classifiers (of this kind, anyway) seems to be the idea of individuation.
And classifiers in the absence of a quantifier express the singular.

>Thus, classifiers have inherently singular semantics: their meaning is
>"one unit of a particular type".  

Or rather, "unit of a particular type".  The "one" is then an obligatory
default sense unless there is explicit quantification.  I prefer this to
saying that Cantonese 

go3 yan6

is "one individual man" and that 

leung4 go3 yan6

is, then, ???"two one individual man".


Alan R. King, Ph.D.
alanking at
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