number marking

Mauro Tosco tosmauro at TN.VILLAGE.IT
Wed Nov 11 17:31:44 UTC 1998

David Gil's comments on number marking in Tagalog prompted me to catch up
in the discussion with some comments on East Africa. David's picture of
Tagalog marking may be summarized, if I understand correctly, as:
1. marking is optional
2. no distinction between "countable" and "uncountable" nouns operates.

Exactly the same situation is found in Cushitic languages of East Africa,
with the difference that there marking is expressed by suffixes, rather
than proclitics or independent words, and that a number of suffixes are
available. When you collect your data, the same speakers will give you for
the same noun two, three or even four different plural forms. You duly
record them, only to discover later that most of the time they are not used
same speaker will use still other forms (Oromo, now a major language in
Kenya/Ethiopia is the most famous case, but the same applies to most
languages in the area).
No difference between mass and countable nouns is found; "waters" is just
as common (or rare) as "tables". In any case, you dispense with
"cumulative" marking (if number is marked on the verb you do not mark it on
the noun. Generally, you do not mark number after a numeral, etc.)

Very informally and traditionally speaking again, my idea of this fact is
that number, an "inflectional" category in most Western languages, is
really more a derivational category in Cushitic and others. As such, to ask
for the plural of a noun in Oromo is not different from asking for the
diminutive of a noun (or a proper name) in many Romance (etc.) languages:
you come up with a number of forms, which are all as "right" and "possible"
as the others and may also be cumulated - and all are optional (I mean,
strictly grammatically, not pragmatically of course).
I wonder if this is applicable to other situations.
Mauro Tosco

Mauro Tosco,
Dept. of African and Arab Studies,
Istituto Universitario Orientale,
Naples, Italy

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list