Zero-coded plurals of pluralia tantum

Greville Corbett g.corbett at SURREY.AC.UK
Mon Dec 21 10:34:56 UTC 2009

Dear Kazuto
(and other number-buffs)

Besides the references that Alex kindly points out, there is a tricky set of
examples researched by Dick Hayward (more below).

A key question with pluralia tantum is whether we are dealing with items
which lack singular morphology, or with items which additionally are
restricted in their agreement possibilities. Thus English scissors lacks a
singular form and so - not unreasonably - lacks singular agreements. Tsez
xex-bi 'children' lacks a singular form, but doesn't let that stop it taking
the appropriate agreements (see Bernard Comrie 2001: 381-383, and p.c.,
Corbett 2000: 175, 2007).

A second point is to extend the analysis to larger systems, where we find
items which, say, lack the singular in a singular-dual-plural system, or
lack both singular and dual.

The Cushitic language Bayso, as described in Hayward (1979) is something of
a wonder. It has four number values, and the agreements are surprising,
namely that regular plural nouns take masculine singular agreement, and
paucal nouns take plural agreement. AND THEN, some nouns, naturally, don't
have all the number forms. For those wanting a linguistic challenge over the
break, it's spelled out in Corbett & Hayward (1987).

Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP.
Corbett, Greville G. 2007. Deponency, syncretism and what lies between. In:
Matthew Baerman, Greville G. Corbett, Dunstan Brown and Andrew Hippisley
(eds) Deponency and Morphological Mismatches (Proceedings of the British
Academy, 145), 21-43. Oxford: British Academy and Oxford University Press.
Corbett, Greville G. & Hayward, Richard J. 1987. Gender and number in Bayso.
Lingua 73.1‑28.
Hayward, Richard J. 1979. Bayso revisited: some preliminary linguistic
observations ‑ II. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London 42.101–32.

Best to all
Greville Corbett

On 21/12/2009 02:14, "Kazuto Matsumura" <kazuto.matsumura at NIFTY.COM> wrote:

> Dear Siva and all,
> As this is a typology list, it would be very nice for
> the coming summary of this dicsussion to include a
> report on how common the phenomenon of pluralia tantum
> itself is outside the Indo-European family of languages.
> I am very curious, because the English-language Winkipedia
> article on plurale tantum, for example, gives examples
> taken from a few Indo-European languages only.
> Incidentally, the "trousers" words in both Finnish and
> Estonian are probably plurale tantum, but they are
> languages spoken in areas adjacent to the SAE region
> and have been strongly influenced by Swedish and German,
> respectively, for centuries.
> In case this is a topic that has already been discussed
> here or studied somewhere, I apologize for my intrusion,
> but ask you to kindly lead me to the relevant literature.
> Thank you.
> Kazuto Matsumura
> Univ. of Tokyo
> Siva Kalyan <sivakalyan.princeton at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> (2009/12/21 04:47)
>> Hi,
>> Suppose I had one pair of trousers with a hole in it. I would exclaim, "My
>> trousers have a hole in them!". Now suppose I had the misfortune to discover
>> that this was true of *all* of my pairs of trousers. Then I would say, "All
>> my trousers have a hole in them!". Note that in the first case,
>> *trousers*refers to a single pair of trousers, whereas in the second,
>> it refers to
>> multiple pairs.
>> What I'm curious about is: How common is this in the world's languages? That
>> is, how common is it for a language to zero-code the plural of a plurale
>> tantum (a noun denoting a singular entity but which is grammatically
>> plural)? Is there any other strategy that is used used in such situations?
>> (The earlier thread on double plurals comes to mind.)
>> Also, why would a language zero-code this kind of plural in the first place?
>> Might it have to do with the "repeated morph constraint" (Menn and
>> MacWhinney 1984) or "product-oriented schemas" (Bybee 2001)?
>> Thanks,
>> Siva
>> Ref's
>> Bybee, Joan. Phonology and Language Use. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
>> Menn, L, and B MacWhinney. "The Repeated Morph Constraint: Toward An
>> Explanation." Language 60, no. 3 (1984): 519-541.
> --
> Kazuto Matsumura
> kazuto.matsumura(a)

Greville G. Corbett

Surrey Morphology Group
English (J1) 
Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences
University of Surrey
Guildford                                   email: g.corbett at
Surrey, GU2 7XH    
Great Britain                               phone:  +44 1483 682849            fax:  +44 1483 686231

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