Zero-coded plurals of pluralia tantum

Bernhard Waelchli bernhard.waelchli at ISW.UNIBE.CH
Mon Dec 21 10:00:05 UTC 2009

Dear colleagues

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 
     intens            tomorrow
‘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’

Best wishes
Bernhard Wälchli

Selected references
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 
sammenlignende kulturforskning.
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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