classifiers and plural marking

Alan R. King mccay at REDESTB.ES
Wed Nov 11 08:53:32 UTC 1998

David Gil said:

>In English there are quite a few cases of number marking being
>optional.  First, the obvious case of nouns denoting homogeneous
>substances, such as "gold".  Then, the somewhat less obvious case of
>nouns which English, somewhat idiosyncratically, groups together with
>mass nouns, eg. "furniture".  Then ... big game, as in "Yesterday the
>hunters bagged three elephant".  And so on -- there's been quite a bit
>of discussion of these constructions in the literature.

For the present discussion, I feel that most if not all of these
"counter-examples" are not.  Now I guess I will have to justify that.  Let
me begin with an oblique analogy.

Remember the controversy over ergative languages and in particular the
search for "real" or "fully" ergative langauges.  Basque was one of the
first heads to roll: bah! merely ergative morphology, no ergative syntax!
Then came the attacks on claims of ergative syntax for particular
languages, until....  Now the identification of "ergative", "accusative"
and other language types is clearly bound up with the very concept of
"subject".  I believe it was Dixon who observed that because there are
certain interclausal syntactic properties of subjects that are universal
(or perhaps we should say, as universal as the notion of "subject" itself),
it is pointless to try to use precisely those properties to *discriminate*
between ergative and non-ergative languages.  Their systematic application
would have led merely to the unhelpful conclusion that there are NO
ergative languages.

(Note irrelevant to the present discussion: Dixon (Ergativity, 1994: 131f.)
identifies universal subject properties related to (a) imperatives, (b)
verbs governing complement clauses, and (c) control in reflexives.  Just
for the record!)

That's what I think we have to do about those counter-examples, David.  Yes
of course, English non-count nouns, as this label denotes, are invariable
for number.  At least in the version of English grammar I (explicitly or
implicitly) teach in my persona as an instructor of English as a Foreign
Language, these (which we actually call "uncountable" nouns - same thing,
less technical sounding) include both nouns like "gold" and those like
"furniture", i.e. mass nouns and collective nouns.  By definition (that's
the way we do it), these resist number marking; for that matter, they also
resist quantification by means of numerals OTHER THAN THROUGH THE MEDIATION
OF "CLASSIFIERS" such as "piece", "chunk" or "item":

three pieces/chunks/... of gold
two pieces/items/... of furniture

Is it universal (in languages with number marking, I mean) for some nouns
to behave like this, or at least for a subset of nouns to be invariable for
number?  As far as I know it may well be, though I don't dispose of
empirical evidence.  If so, then citing examples of such nouns to show that
in the language in question number marking is NOT OBLIGATORY is not very
meaningful, and only serves to blur the (hopefully valid) distinction we're
trying to establish between the other types of number marking (restricted,
optional, etc.).

If, on the other hand, the category +-count turns out, on further
investigation, to be a language-specific one (and I'm not putting any money
on it), then I suppose this phenomenon would indeed have to be transferred
to the "number marking is restricted..." class.

Now before we get into a flurry over this, let me hasten to add that the
possibly universal *existence* (in number-marking languages) of a subset of
"uncountable" nouns is one thing; the way in which particular nouns are or
are not assigned to the uncountable class, and hence *which* nouns get to
be uncountable, need not coincide between languages (I am NOT proposing a
semantic "universal" at this stage, only a syntactic one!).

If I may draw further from my wisdom as a mere language teacher: when you
try to teach the count/non-count principle (or whatever you wish to call
it) to speakers of other languages, there are two big obstacles: (a)
speakers of languages without nominal number marking, and hence WITHOUT the
+-count feature, are predictably lost; but ALSO (b) speakers of other
languages WITH the +-count feature, while instinctively aware of the
distinction, invariably make mistakes in ASSIGNMENT of this feature to
specific nouns.  Ask any teacher.  Or try to explain to a Spanish speaker
how come you can give "explanations" but not "informations" (similarly for
Hebrew speakers, right?), or why you can't count spaghettis... or
furnitures, for that matter.

So, it is my contention (pending further empirical confirmation) that, for
the distinctions we are establishing to remain meaningful and useful,
examples such as the uncountability (in English) of "gold" and "furniture"
do not make English a "restricted number marking" language, at least not in
the sense I had in mind, any more than the existence in English of
classifier-like measure nouns in expressions such as "piece of
gold/furniture/information/spaghetti..." makes English, in a meaningful and
useful sense, a true "classifier language".

And that leaves the problem of the elephant.  I am not familiar with the
discussion of these constructions in the literature you refer to, David,
but it seems to me that this example shows, at the most, that SOME
particular nouns (in SOME contexts, I expect) can be treated as invariable
for number - not in the syntactic sense of non-count nouns, but rather in
the morphological sense of being like "sheep".  As far as I know the
passive equivalent to your sentence is "Three elephant WERE bagged", not
"was".  English, after all, has words like "people": "Three people WERE
seen".  In the case of "elephant", perhaps there is *morphological*
optionality of plural marking.

Interesting, but I don't think it affects the overall argument at all.


More information about the Lingtyp mailing list