number marking in Basque

aldai aldai at SCF.USC.EDU
Sun Nov 8 22:05:06 UTC 1998

Dear Alan.
Thank you for your little catching up. Now I see I didn't miss any
important thing for our discussion.
Perhaps my last e-mail was not clear enough of my point.
My idea is: you got a good point on the fact that -A is not just a
definite article, but rather the unmarked case. NOBODY defended the
opposite here. You are fighting against mills. In fact, the point is
not new at all. Even more traditional scholars wouldn't defend the
opposite (the late Prof. Irigoyen, for instance, was always defending in
class that -A was not only a definite article).  The atributive clause
shows an adjective with -A (he is tall= altu-A da), the citation form of a
noun shows also this -A, and so forth...

That's why I said that in singular there is (almost) no trace (at least in
absolutive or ergative cases; but why don't you take a look at the local
cases?) of the so-called indefinite form of the noun. But in PLURAL
(and in the local cases, it could be added) there clearly is: that was my
point. There is STILL some evidence, and there is STILL some need for an
indefinite form to be considered. Period.

Now, your point was way too radical and it was begging for someone to say
something against it. So, the first part of my statement is that I agree
with a very important part of your point (perhaps I didn't make this clear
enough last time, because it was too obvious for me), and the second part
is that I don't agree with ALL of it.
THERE IS a contrast between forms regarding definiteness in MANY contexts:
'gizon-A' (the man) versus 'gizon BAT' (a man/one man); 'hiru gizon'
(three men) vs. 'hiru gizon-AK' (the three men).
HOWEVER, this doesn't imply that the -A ALWAYS, in all instances, means
definiteness (unless you want to defend underlying meanings, necessary and
sufficient conditions, one-form-one-meaning, or something of a kind. Of
course, if your point of departure is that, I mean if you tell me "what do
you prefer white or black", then I will probably agree with you; but there
are many grey tones in between).

To be honest, if something I don't like within linguistics is this kind of
synchronic discussions, where there has to be only ONE possible analysis,
and everybody struggles trying to find THE right one. Probably there is
most of the times ONE best analysis, but surely it is seldom THE PERFECT
ONE. That's why I prefer to look for evolutionary tendencies,
grammaticalization  paths: to try to see what's going on, and try to give
explanations, if possible. That's also why I brought the XVII century
example. In fact, in favor of Alan's point. The presumably former
indefinite form is not grammatical currently (again, in absolutive,
ergative, etc). But it was possible just some centuries ago. So this
gives us a very good perspective of the direction of the evolution. The -A
morpheme is clearly of demonstrative origin, so it is expected to find in
it a definiteness sense in many contexts coming from a retention of its
erlier meaning.

The best point of Alan's was no doubt his idea of a grammaticalization
continuum for number. Otherwise just to look for clear-cut oppositions and
to give labels to everything is (although probably necessary) really
boring (and possibly not totally accurate).

However, the most important point in the present discussion was concerned
with plural reference. And there I don't see Alan tries to give any
explanation for the fact that it is with numerals that the opposition
'gizon' / 'gizonak' (indefinite / definite) appears. A putative
explanation, though, doesn't seem too hard to find.

The evolution appears to go towards a quite West European type of
obligatory number marking, probably from a non-grammaticalized number
system (this is just a speculative starting point).
If -A and -AK were originally (rather recently in relative terms)
grammaticalized as definiteness markers (from demonstrative sources)
opposing -0 forms (like 'gizon') with indefinite meaning (previously
unmarked forms). If furthermore, there was a still younger indefinite
article of late introduction from numeral origin (ONE, cf. Spanish UN,
UNA): BAT. Then in singular, there was no place for the old 'gizon' form
to exist: the main definiteness contrast would be between gizon-A and
gizon BAT, with minor arcaisms that we have already talked about.

But we haven't talked about plural reference yet. Which is by far
the important issue here. If the original meaning of -AK was
plural-definite rather than plural only (as the original meaning of -A was
singular-definite), then it is very likely to find more contexts with
plural reference than with singular where this meaning can be retained and
contrasted with a plural-indefinite, which can hardly be displaced by a
new plural indefinite article, like singular 'ONE'. These contexts are
exactly the ones with numerals and the like.
That is, in singular we have a very common definiteness contrast between
	(1) the boy, el chico
	(2) a boy, un chico
(again, this doesn't mean that 'the boy' has ALWAYS definite reference,
even for English or Spanish).
In plural, we parallely have:
	(3) the boys, los chicos
	(4) some boys, unos chicos
But with numerals, we have:
	(5) the four boys, los cuatro chicos
	(6) four boys, cuatro chicos

Just as in English, Spanish, etc. there is a definite marker in (5) and no
marker in (6), this contrast is expressed in Basque by the presence or
absence of -AK. Hence, -AK STILL retains to some important extent a
definite-plural meaning, not just a plural one. And this was just my
point. Unlike singular, in plural reference, the -AK morpheme is to an
important extent a plural-definite marker (although many gnomic and
indefinite metaphores are to be expected).
((By the way, the higher frequency of (6) versus (5), Basque versions,
that Alan was mentioning, in case it is true, is not a point at all:
the difference is semantically so clear that frequency would only be an
indicator of the relative use of definite versus indefinite NPs with

To conclude, traditional grammars tend to be too conservative, as if we
still were speaking XVII century Basque. But Alan's analysis belongs
rather to XXIII century BAsque. That's why a centered position seemed to
me necessary. I'm not interested at all in pursuing this discussion. This
is way too far from my points of interest. But I really appreciated the
exchange of ideas. Thanx.

Gontzal Aldai

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