Zero-coded plurals of pluralia tantum
bernhard.waelchli at ISW.UNIBE.CH
Mon Dec 21 10:00:05 UTC 2009
There is a absolute classic for pluralia tantum, if it was written in
English, everybody would know it: Zaliznjak (1967). (But books not
written in English cannot be classic literature by definition.)
Zaliznjak argues that pluralia tantum are a syntactic class (actually
one of seven genders in Russian), because there is no contexts where
pluralia tantum ever have agreement with a singular, not even in
distributive contexts, such as (1):
(1) Russian (Zaliznjak 1967: 76)
Vot odni iz ètix sanej
behold one:pl from this:pl:gen sledge:pl:gen
‘Look here is one of these sledges.’
Accordingly, pluralia tantum are not defined as nouns lacking plurals,
Zaliznjak excludes examples such as rebjata ‘boys, guys, folks’ which
has no singular, but shows singular agreement in distributive contexts.
(2) Russian (Zaliznjak 1967: 78)
Vot odin iz ètix rebjat
behold one:sg.m from this:pl:gen boy:pl:gen
‘Look here is one of these guys/boys.’
However, sapogi ‘pair of boots’ is a plurale tantum in its meaning ‘pair
of boots’ even though there is a corresponding singular.
It turns out that there are no animate pluralia tantum
according to this definition in Russian (except perhaps the ‘whites’ and
‘blacks’ in chess about which two nouns Zaliznjak has a brilliant long
In a recent excellent monograph Acquaviva (2007) denies that
pluralia tantum are class of their own, taking the traditional
morphological definition for granted without referring to Zaliznjak.
However, Acquaviva uses the same kind of test to describe lexical
plurals, notably in Italian where there are relics from neuter that have
feminine in the plural and masculine in the singular, such as uovo ‘egg’
masculine, plural uova ‘eggs’ feminine, but una (feminine) delle uova
‘one of the eggs’ not *uno delle uova. (This is amply described in the
Romanist literature, so please, apologize that I am to general here.)
However, according to Zaliznjak’s approach, pluralia tantum can be
easily kept distinct from other kinds of lexical plurals in that they
never have singular agreement, not even in distributive contexts. It
follows from this approach that there are also phrasal pluralia tantum,
such as German ‘Olympische Spiele’ Olympic Games (game is no plurale
tantum, but Olympic Games is). Interestingly, German has no way to
express distributivity with pluralia tantum:
*einer von den Ferien/*eine von den Ferien/*ein(e)s von den Ferien
*einer von den Olympischen Spielen/*eine von den Olympischen
Spielen/*ein(e)s von den Olympischen Spielen/*ein von den Olympischen
For a survey of pluralia tantum in Europe see (Koptjevskaja-Tamm &
Wälchli 2001). Outside Europe, pluralia tantum are common, for instance,
in Burushaski, Zuni, Kiowa (class IVc) (Zuni and Kiowa-Tanoan are
exceptional in this respect for North America), and the paradise for
students of pluralia tantum would be Africa, if more African languages
were better described (well-known examples are Bantu languages, such as
Swahili, but there are many more languages in Africa with many pluralia
tantum). Of couse, as pointed out by Marcel Erdal, dual has to be taken
into account, if there is a dual, as, for instance, in classical
Indo-European languages where there are many pluralia tantum and Semitic
Of particular interest is Karen Ebert’s grammar of Kera. In Kera
collectives are a gender along with masculine and feminine. If my
interpretation of the lecture of the grammar is correct, the large class
of collectives could be viewed as a gender of pluralia tantum in the
sense of Zaliznjak (with the difference that this is a major gender in
Kera, including many inanimate nouns). Collective gender nouns have
always plural agreement, even if there is only
(40) Kera (Ebert 1979, II: 149)
_Kámpá_ yáakáŋ kə́na mə̀nà. _Ye_ téw
yaŋ wə́ra dìbìinìm
leg let:pst here one. 3pl finish fut
‘There is only one leg left (to be eaten). It will be finished tomorrow.’
Note that these few remarks are not enough to do justice to Kera, if you
are interested in the whole story, go to Ebert’s book.
Generally, pluralia tantum seem to extend only if a language
has a high grammaticalization of nominal number. This is because of the
animacy hierarchy where inanimate nouns come lowest on the hierarchy and
because proper pluralia tantum rarely are animates (as shown by
Zaliznjak for Russian). An exception are a totally different kind of
pluralia tantum deriving from verbal number, as for instance, in Dakota:
Dakota (Siouan, Boas & Deloria 1939: 66)
“Many nouns are verbal forms with the plural ending -pi: Some of them
have lost their verbal function and are used as nouns only while others
are rather felt as verbal forms.”
ti-pi live-pl ‘tent/house’. ‘aġu´yapi ‘they cause it to be scorched >
bread’, wak’a´lyapi ‘something they make hot > tea, coffee’
Acquaviva, Paolo. 2008. Lexical Plurals. A morphosemantic approach.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Berger, Hermann. 1974. Das Yasin-Burushaski (Werchikwar). Grammatik,
Texte, Wörterbuch. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Boas, Franz & Deloria, Ella. 1941 / 1976. Dakota Grammar. (Memoires of
the National Academy of Science 23.) Washington: United States
Government Printing Office.
Ebert, Karen H. 1979. Sprache und Tradition der Kera (Tschad). III:
Grammatik. Berlin: Reimer.
Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria & Wälchli, Bernhard. 2001. The Circum-Baltic
languages. An areal-typological approach. In Dahl, Östen &
Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria (eds.) Circum-Baltic languages 2: Grammar and
Typology, 615-761. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Lorimer, D.L.R. 1935-1938. The Burushaski language. I. Introduction and
grammar. III. Vocabularies and index. Oslo: Instituttet for
Watkins, Laurel J. 1984. A Grammar of Kiowa. With assistance of Parker
McKenzie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Zaliznjak, Andrej A. 1967. Russkoe imennoe slovoizmenenie. Moskva: Nauka.
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