classifiers and plural marking

MORAVCSIK Edit moravcsik at NYTUD.HU
Mon Nov 9 15:34:23 UTC 1998

I am thinking about what has emerged thus far from the discussion
originated by Bingfu Lu regarding the distribution of classifiers and
plural marking across languages. I wonder whether the following is the
correct picture.

Here are the four logically possible types of nominal expressions:

                  classifiers    obligatory plural marking
         Type I        +                    +
         Type II       +                    -
         Type III      -                    +
         Type IV       -                    -

   Re Type I (i.e., both classifiers and obligatory plural marking):
      This type is not allowed by Jan Rijkhoff's nominal
      subclassification and, as Suzanne Kemmer pointed out, it
      is indeed RARE (but there are apparently a few instances of it; cf.
      the Greenberg paper she referred to).

   Re Type II (i.e., classifiers and no obligatory plural marking):
      This is apparently a COMMON type; it is the one that Jan
      Rijkhoff then subdivides into sort nouns, mass nouns, and
      general nouns depending on whether the classifiers used
      are sortal, mensural, or undifferentiated between the two.
      Hideaki Sugai listed Japanese, Korean, all the Chinese dialects,
      Malay-Indonesian, and Bangkok/Thai but then David Gil pointed
      out that the use of classifiers could be more or less
      grammaticalized - in particular, it may be obligatory or
      optional. He provided the following scale:

        obligatory:       some Chinese languages
        very frequent:    Thai, Vietnamese
        frequent:         Banjar Malay
        infrequent:       Kuala Lumpur Malay
        very infrequent:  Riau Indonesian
        abswent:          Tagalog

   Re Type III (i.e., no classifiers and obligatory plural marking):
      This is also a COMMON type (subdivided by Jan Rijkhoff into
      singular object nouns and collective nouns depending on
      whether the meaning of the noun is individual or collective).

   Re Type IV (i.e., no classifiers and no obligatory plural marking):
      This is the type that Bingfu Lu was originally wondering
      whether it existed and the one which Jan Rijkhoff recognizes
      in his classification as existent, calling them set nouns.
      While several languages were mentioned in the discussion
      that seemed to be of this kind, it has also become clear that
      that, just as the notion of  "use of classifiers" needed
      to be qualified, the notion of "no obligatory plural marking" was
      taken in different senses:
        a/ the language has no plural markers at all (this seems
           to have been Bingfu Lu's interpretation)
        b/ the language has plural markers but it does not always
           use them on semantically plural nouns:
           i/ instead, it uses them in only a specificable
              subset of such cases; or
           ii/ it uses them optionally (i.e., in a subset of the
               instances involving semantically plural nouns which,
               however, does not seem specifiable).
      Nobody seems to have cited a language where number marking was
      truly optional in all cases (although Lindsay Whaley's Tungusic
      languages may qualify). It seems that if plural marking was
      lacking in any context, it was obligatorily lacking in
      the company of numerals (and quantifiers).

      As Alan King pointed out, languages which, in one or the other of
      the three senses identified above, do not have obligatory plural
      marking, seem to form a scale. His somewhat modified scale and his
      example languages, supplemented by other languages that have come up
      in the discussion, are the following:

      - number marking is obligatory
        (i.e., every time there is
        a noun with plural referents,
        there is a plural marker):        Germanic, Romance

      - number marking is restricted
        to a specifiable subset of
        plural-referent nouns:            Basque, Hungarian, Welsh
                                          Aymara?, Hawaiian, Yukaghir,
                                          Mari (Cheremis)

      - number marking is optional
        in all contexts:                  Orok (Tungusic), most dialects
                                          of Oroqen other than Western
                                          (Tungusic) /QU to Linsay Whaley:
                                          what about with numerals?/
      - number marking does not
        exist:                            Fijian? Malagasy? Western Oroqen
                                          (Tungusic)? Kutenai?

Based on all of this, I wonder whether the following generalizations hold:

      a/ There is no exceptionless implication between the occurrence of
classifiers in a language and the occurrence of plural marking: languages
can have either, both, or neither. Nonetheless, most languages do
not have both; there are some (a few?) that have neither; and most have
one or the other only.

      b/ If a language has (non-generic) nouns with plural
referents that are not marked for number in any context other
than numerals, it also has such nouns unmarked for number when they
occur with numerals. (I.e., there is no language where plural-referent
nouns are plural-marked when occurring with numerals but not
plural-marked in other contexts.)

Edith Moravcsik

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