David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sat Nov 7 19:49:16 UTC 1998

Two points on classifiers:

Suzanne cited Greenberg's argument as to why classifiers don't generally go
with number inflection:

> He explains these generalizations in terms of the semantics of bare
> nouns in numeral classifier lgs. If I can reconstruct this off the top
> of my head, it goes something like this: bare nouns in numeral
> classifier lgs.  are generic or collective; numerals don't go directly
> with such nouns because numerals count individuals; so the classifier is a
> unitizer that intervenes and makes the nouns countable.  Collectives
> in general are semantically at odds with plurals. Plural forms
> are therefore not general in these lgs.; only a subset
> of nouns where individuation is very high (e.g. humans)
> might take plurals.

This is, I think, a fair representation of the argument; however, the
argument itself seems to me to be flawed.

Compare, say, Japanese and Tagalog.  Japanese requires numeral classifiers
while Tagalog doesn't have them.  Greenberg would then say that in Japanese
"bare nouns are generic or collective" (other people might also say "mass")
-- while in Tagalog they're not.  Unfortunately I'm not aware of any evidence
in support of this claim.  In both Japanese and Tagalog, a bare noun
functioning as a full NP in argument position can be understood, potentially,
as generic or non-generic, collective or non-collecitve, mass or count, and,
if count, singular or plural.  To the best of my knowledge, there are simply
no semantic differences between bare nouns in Japanese (and other classifier
languages such as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese etc.) and bare nouns in Tagalog
(and all the other non-classifier languages that came up in response to
Bingfu's original query) -- differences that would explain why classifiers
occur in the former but not in the latter.  (This is the point which I made
in the "Rivista" paper I cited in an earlier message.)

In the absence of such differences, I must confess to being puzzled as to
"why" some languages have classifiers while others haven't.

To the second point.  Alan takes issue with my characterization of
classifiers as "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".

Well the English translation admittedly sounds pretty awful, but I still
think it's basically right.  Why?  You suggest positing singularity as "an
obligatory default".  But this default will apply *only for classifiers*, not
for nouns, which -- in classifier languages in general -- are unmarked for
number.  So as I see it, positing an obligatory singular default for
classifiers isn't much different than saying that they are inherently
singular :)

David Gil

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

Telephone: 44-341-9952310
Fax: 44-341-9952119
Email: gil at

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