[Lingtyp] Query: looking for singulatives

Jan Rijkhoff linjr at cc.au.dk
Mon May 13 11:48:34 UTC 2019

Dear Silvia,

Since you are trying to come up with “an operational definition of what constitutes a singulative”, I have two comments which might be helpful:

1. Re: “(1) Bayso (Afro-Asiatic): lúban ‘lion(s)’ (general number), singulative lúban-titi ‘a lion’”
Notice that the term ‘general number’ (nouns) is probably too wide, as it covers rather distinct kinds of transnumeral / number-neutral nouns, each with its own ‘mini-grammar’ (semantic, formal, pragmatic properties). Perhaps the two best-known transnumeral noun types (used for concrete objects) are:

(a) ‘sort nouns’, which require a numeral classifier when modified by a numeral, e.g.

Thai (Hundius & Kölver 1983: 172, 167):
                rôm                        sǎam     khan
                umbrella(s)         three     clf:long, handled object
                ‘three umbrellas’

(b) ’set nouns’, which do NOT require a classifier when modified by a cardinal numeral (Rijkhoff 2004: 101-121), e.g.

Oromo (Stroomer 1987: 59)
                gaala                    lamaani
                camel(s)               two
                ‘two camels’

Apparently only ‘set nouns’ may appear with a singulative marker (in some languages), not ‘sort nouns’.

2. RE the term ‘singulative marker’
The label ‘singulative marker’ has been used for elements with rather different meanings and functions. It would be good not to add to the confusion. For example, on so-called ‘morphological collective nouns’ (as attested in e.g. Breton and other Brittonic languages that you are very familiar with), which are NOT transnumeral, it seems to serve as a derivational affix (Aquaviva 2008: 246; Greenberg 1972: 20).
                On transnumeral set nouns (that do not require a numeral classifier when counted, see (b) above), as attested in e.g. Oromo, Georgian, Turkish and many other languages, such markers serve to indicate the size of a set entity. They have been coined SET NOUNS because they denote a set, which can have any number of members, including ‘one’ (singleton set). In some languages that have these transnumeral set nouns, the size/kind of set referred to is explicitly marked by so-called ‘nominal aspect markers’ (Rijkhoff 2004: 101-121; Rijkhoff 2008). These inflectional markers belong to a distinct grammatical category, as they do not express quantitative (number) distinctions, but rather qualitative distinctions. By using a nominal aspect marker, the speaker specifies what KIND of set is being referred to: a singleton set (with just one member) or a set with multiple members (i.e. a collective or a distributive set of individuals or objects).
                Some other properties of set nouns: (a) as a rule, the nominal aspect marker (often erroneously called ‘number marker’) never appears on numerated set nouns (for an explanation, see Rijkhoff 2004) and (b) subject NPs headed by a numerated set noun trigger (obligatory) singular verb agreement (because agreement is with the set, which is always a single entity, not with the members of the set) – as in this example from Oromo (other examples, from Georgian and Lango, in Rijkhoff 2004: 109, 113).

Oromo (Stroomer 1987: 59, 107)
                gaala                                    lamaani                               sookoo d'ak'-e
                camel(s)                               two                                        market go-3sg.m.past
                ‘Two camels went to the market.’

Acquaviva, Paolo. 2008. Lexical Plurals: A morphosemantic approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenberg, Joseph H. 1972. Numeral classifiers and substantival number: Problems in the genesis of a linguistic type. Working Papers on Language Universals 9 (Stanford University), 2-39.
Rijkhoff, Jan. 2004. The Noun Phrase. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Expanded Pb publication of the 2002 Hb edition]
Rijkhoff, Jan. 2008. On flexible and rigid nouns. Studies in Language 32-3, 727-752.

Best, Jan R
J. Rijkhoff - Associate Professor
Linguistics, Aarhus University
Jens Chr. Skous Vej 2, Building 1485-621
DK-8000 Aarhus C, DENMARK
Phone: (+45) 87162143
E-mail: linjr at cc.au.dk<mailto:linjr at cc.au.dk>
URL: http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/linjr@cc.au.dk

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of "Nurmio, Silva M" <silva.nurmio at helsinki.fi>
Date: Monday, 13 May 2019 at 09.15
To: "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: [Lingtyp] Query: looking for singulatives

Dear all,

I’m looking for data on singulatives and I’m writing to ask for your help in tracking down more instances of this phenomenon. There is so far no comprehensive list of singulatives in the world’s languages that’s informed by an operational definition of what constitutes a singulative, and my aim is to produce such a database.

My working definition of the singulative is that it is a noun form with any marker (inflectional or derivational) that creates a meaning ‘one’ or ‘(one) unit’ when added to a base, i.e. a singulativizing and individuating marker. Bases for singulatives tend to be mass nouns, plurals, collectives of different kinds, general number forms, and sometimes non-nominal bases like adjectives. Here are four examples of different types of singulatives under my definition:

(1) Bayso (Afro-Asiatic): lúban ‘lion(s)’ (general number), singulative lúban-titi ‘a lion’

(2) Russian (Indo-European) gorox ‘pea(s)’ (mass), singulative goroš-ina ‘a pea’

(3) Italian (Indo-European) cioccolato ’chocolate’ (mass), singulative cioccolat-ino ’a chocolate praline, chocolate sweet’

(4) Welsh (Indo-European) unigol ‘individual’ (adjective), singulative unigol-yn ‘an individual’

These examples show that singulatives occur in different number systems, and they can be productive or unproductive (like the Russian -ina suffix). I also include diminutive markers which have a singulative function, as seen in (3) (Jurafsky 1996 calls this the ’partitive’ function of diminutives). Forms that are singulatives are often not described as such in grammars (especially types 3 and 4), making them harder to find. I am also including singulatives in older language stages which have since been lost (e.g. Old Irish).

Below is a list of languages (alphabetical order) on which I already have data. I would be very grateful for any pointers to grammars, language descriptions or other mentions of singulatives in languages which are not on the list, or if you think there are sources for any of the already listed languages that I’m likely to have missed.

Thank you very much in advance!

Best wishes,

Silva Nurmio



Arabic (several dialects)













Enets (Forest Enets and Tundra Enets)













Marle (Murle)




Nahuatl (all dialects?)

Ojibwe (all dialects?)

Old Irish

Oromo (Borana dialect)

















Dr Silva Nurmio
Research Fellow
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
Fabianinkatu 24 (P.O. Box 4)
00014 University of Helsinki, Finland


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