number marking in Basque

Alan R. King mccay at REDESTB.ES
Sun Nov 8 00:04:54 UTC 1998

Gontzal Aldai says:

>(First, I have to confess i haven't followed the discussion so far. So
>perhaps I'm missing some important point).
>It seems the important point Alan's argumentation is missing is
>DEFINITENESS. He is only talking about Basque singular/plural markers
>but not as singular-definite or plural-definite markers.
>> *gizon
>> gizon-A 'man'
>> gizon-AK 'men'
>> gizon HURA 'that man'
>> gizon ASKO 'many men'
>> HIRU gizon 'three men'

Gontzal, it is just possible that you DID miss some important point earlier
in the discussion.  In an earlier post on the subject (prior to Lourdes'
post) I made clear my position to the effect that it is a (traditional)
fallacy to identify the default determiner in Basque as definite
(sometimes, "definite article").

(Actually, although I say that is the current (and traditional) view, it is
not that of some of today's foremost grammarians (as reflected, for
example, in the Euskaltzaindia (EGLU) grammar, vol. I).)

Traditional grammarians call -A/-AK a definite article (or "definite",
anyway), and then the more insightful among them quickly notice that this
"definite article" occurs not only without a "definite" meaning, but in
many contexts where no definite article is used in neighbouring languages
(i.e. in languages with REAL definite articles - ARK), and as a result of
this, you will typically find in their grammars lists of "cases when Basque
requires the article".  (For example, Villasante in one of the books in his
series on issues in Basque grammar a few years back; you probably don't
need me to provide the exact reference, but I'll look for it if you like.)

In contrast, the EGLU grammar, at this point in its discussion of the
article (which on this occasion coincides substantially with my view),
having established that the unmarked situation is for the article to be
present in NPs, proceeds to give a list of the "cases when Basque does NOT
require the article".  (Disclaimer: Even though one of the co-authors of
this grammar, I am not a staunch defender of everything in it!)

On the whole, then, I maintain that the meaning of the Basque article is
not inherently definite.  As a matter of fact, what I maintain is that the
Basque article has no meaning (pace all those who think every morpheme must
have a meaning).  The article in Basque is a morpheme whose occurrence is
required, obligatorily, in a syntactically definable range of contexts.
There is rarely a minimal contrast between its occurrence and
non-occurrence.  Thus, also, the absence of the article (*gizon) does not
"mean" indefiniteness; it doesn't mean anything because it isn't a noun

This is the argument expressed in general (and generally intelligible)
terms; of course it is a simplification of a more complicated situation
whose full range of details is highly unlikely to interest enough members
of this list to give me licence to enter into a thorough discussion (though
we can of course go on discussing at greater length in private if you would
like to).  There are indeed specific subcases.  For example, I already
mentioned previously a context in which "gizon" can constitute a whole NP.

>What his paradigm is clearly missing is:
>	HIRU gizon-AK 'the three men'

I expected someone to bring this up.  It is admittedly the biggest problem
for my theory.  It is the one (and as far as I know, the ONE, I repeat)
environment in which we DO get that minimal pair:

	HIRU gizon 'three men'
	HIRU gizon-AK 'the three men'

It only works with numerals.  There are various ways to build into a theory
a clause to allow for this state of affairs.  I don't care to go into the
issue (unless there is an expression of strong interest!), because this
would probably degenerate into an argument about formalisms which is not my
cup of tea.  The facts, though, are the facts, and this is the weakest
point of my side of the story.

>Therefore, THERE IS a contrast between indefinite 'gizon' versus
>definite 'gizon-AK'.

But only when there is a numeral in the noun phrase.

Remember (maybe you missed that part of the discussion too) that this all
started with a question from Bingfu about non-classifier languages in which
number is not marked in NPs, and I first wrote to explain, in the immediate
context of a posting by Edith Moravcsik, that some languages which
regularly maintain a number distinction, including Basque (and Welsh...),
do not include the plural markers in NPs containing (among other things) a
numeral.  Indeed the only types of noun phrase in Basque with plural
reference but no plural marker are those containing, as I said the first
time round, a numeral or a determiner/quantifier with plural meaning (e.g.
"asko" 'much/many').  Example: hiru gizon 'three men'.  Granted, we can
also say in Basque hiru gizonak 'the three men', and for that matter hiru
gizon hauek 'these three men' etc., though far less frequently than plain
hiru gizon without a determiner (or a plural marker), which is the more
usual construction and anyway the only one that was relevant to the
original discussion (on NON-marking of number).

>(The contrast between indefinite 'gizon' and singular-definite
>'gizon-A' can hardly be found, because in current Basque there are not
>indefinite-singular NPs in afirmative sentences, and indefinite NPs
>in negative sentences show a PARTITIVE marker.

in other words: The contrast between indefinite 'gizon' and singular-definite
'gizon-A' can hardly be found, because in current Basque 'gizon' without a
determiner (or quantifier) hardly exists.

>But compare the following
>example with an indefinite-singular noun (eye-ERGATIVE) from a XVII
>century text:
>	Ez (h)akusan BEGI-K nigar ez degik
>	'L'oeil qui ne te voit pas ne te pleurera pas'
>	Lit. "EYE that doesn't see you won't cry for you"

Sure.  But you were forced to go to an early text, to a proverb, and to a
usage quite foreign to the present-day language to prove your point.  And
even then, that usage was probably marginal - it certainly occurs rarely,
and it seems always to be the same example that's cited (if I'm not
mistaken, it's the one Azkue gave in his dictionary).  Unless you can show
some non-marginal examples from the present language, which I very much
doubt, this rare example almost supports, by its anomalousness, my position
more than yours!

>The paradigm for this XVII century variety would be:
>begi 'eye-ABS'
>begi-k 'eye-ERG'
>begi-A 'the eye-ABS'
>begi-A-K 'the eye-ERG'

Well, that would be true if (among other things) the use of begik
illustrated in the foregoing example were anything like the normal usage.
I doubt it was that even in the XVIIth century.  Certainly the paradigm you
give has no place in a synchronic description of present-day Basque.  Or
rather, as a morphological paradigm it's impeccable, but not as a syntactic
one (*begik without a preceding determiner or quantifier is impossible),
nor as a semantic one (begia isn't necessarily 'THE eye', it could be 'AN
eye', or even just 'eye': point to an eye and ask a Basque speaker "Hau zer
da?" 'What is this?', and she will respond "begia", not *"begi").


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