[Lingtyp] Query: looking for singulatives

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Mon May 13 12:20:35 UTC 2019

It's great to see this plan to study singulative constructions 
cross-lingistically – but we would probably all want to distinguish 
singulative markers from singular markers, and Silva's working 
definition does not achieve this yet:

"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."

This is because in many Indo-European languages, and also in many 
languages of Africa (and sometimes elsewhere), nouns have obligatory 
affixes that signal that they are singular. For example, in the Latin 
contrast hort-us 'garden' vs. hort-i 'gardens', the suffix -us signals 
singular (and nominative). And in Swahili, the contrast ki-toto/vi-toto 
'baby/babies' is a singular-plural contrast. (These affixes also have 
implications for gender assignment, but this is irrelevant here.)

We would not want to call Latin -us and Swahili ki- "singulative 
affixes" – but why not?

It seems to me that the basic intuition that we all share is that a 
singulative marker is a marker on a base which can be used with plural 
meaning if unmarked. In a 2017 paper, Andres Karjus and I gave the 
following definition:

"A singulative/basic pair is a pair of noun forms where one member is a 
markeduniplex nominal (e.g., Welsh moron-en ‘carrot’), while the other 
member is an unmarked multiplex nominal (e.g., Welsh moron ‘carrots’)" 
(Haspelmath & Karjus 2017: §2; available at 

I now realize that this definition is a bit vague, and the Vietnamese 
example that David Gil gave (CLF N 'a N') could indeed be seen as a 
singulative construction (as the noun by itself can be used with plural 
meaning). One could make the definition narrower by requiring that the 
noun without the singulative marker MUST have plural (multiplex) 
meaning, and since this is not the case in Vietnamese, it would not be 
singulative after all.

David mentions the difference between "syntax" and "morphology", and 
while this is traditionally considered important, Silva merely talks 
about "a singulativizing and individuating marker". But *markers* are 
not always affixes, so there is no need to decide whether Vietnamese 
classifiers are affixes. All that matters is that they are markers (i.e. 
they are bound forms which are not roots), and this is not in question.

In addition to Haspelmath & Karjus (2017), there is another recent paper 
that comes to very similar conclusions: Grimm's (2018) paper on 
"countability classes" and the "individuation scale" (discussed here: 


Jan Rijkhoff wrote on 13.05.19 13:48:
> 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
> Aari
> Akkadian
> Arabic (several dialects)
> Arbore
> Baiso/Bayso
> Baule
> Berber
> Bidyogo
> Bora
> Breton
> Burushaski
> Cantonese
> Cornish
> Dagaare
> Dutch
> Enets (Forest Enets and Tundra Enets)
> Ewe
> Fox
> Gede'o
> Hebrew
> Imonda
> Italian
> Itelmen
> Kambaata
> Kiowa
> Krongo
> Majang
> Maltese
> Marle (Murle)
> Masa
> Miraña
> Nafusi
> Nahuatl (all dialects?)
> Ojibwe (all dialects?)
> Old Irish
> Oromo (Borana dialect)
> Resígaro
> Russian
> Shilluk
> Shona
> Sidamo
> Swahili
> Tariana
> Tewa
> Tigre
> Tiwa
> Towa
> Turkana
> Ukrainian
> Welsh
> Yiddish
> Zulu
> Dr Silva Nurmio
> Research Fellow
> Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
> Fabianinkatu 24 (P.O. Box 4)
> 00014 University of Helsinki, Finland
> https://tuhat.helsinki.fi/portal/en/person/sinurmio
> _______________________________________________
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Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de <mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10	
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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