LINGUIST List 5.1362

Sun 27 Nov 1994

Sum: Number Invariance

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  1. Almerindo E. Ojeda, Number Invariance: Summary

Message 1: Number Invariance: Summary

Date: Sat, 26 Nov 1994 16:34:06 Number Invariance: Summary
From: Almerindo E. Ojeda <>
Subject: Number Invariance: Summary

Several weeks ago I posted a call for help identifying languages in
which nouns may show the same form of number with all enumerating
numerals. Examples from English, which does not in general allow such
number invariance, include the noun 'head' in 'one head of cattle',
'two head of cattle', etc. and, more systematically, nouns compounded
with numerals (cf. two-car garage, three-body problem,four-week ins-
titute, five-page summary, six-foot high).

A summary of the responses follows. Please feel free to add to this
list (or to take issue with my summaries). Thanks to Patrick Farrell,
Tim Pulju and all the sources mentioned below. Thanks also to the res-
pondents who provided the following general discussion of number invar-
iance and English compounds:

Churma, D. (1983) "Jets fans, Raider Rooters, and the interaction
 of morphosyntactic processes". CLS 19 (Paravolume)
Churma, D. (1987) "Explaining level ordering, and how not to
 parse a word". BLS 13.
Rijkhoff, J. 1991. "Nominal aspect". Journal of Semantics 8-4,
Rijkhoff, J. 1992. The Noun Phrase: a typological study of its
 form and structure. Doctoral dissertation, University of
 Amsterdam. [esp. Ch. 3.1.1. pp. 74-103]
Rijkhoff, J. Forthcoming?. "`Number' disagreement". Proceedings
 of the XVth International Congress of Linguists, 9-14 August
 1992, Quebec, Canada.

1) Australian: Many Australian languages show number invariance.
Although they generally have a plural morpheme that may be affixed
to nouns, this is not used unless required by pragmatic considera-
tions. Thus, in Pitjantjatjara (Western Desert), ngampu is 'egg',
and we have ngampu marnkurpa 'three eggs'. References on Pitjantja-
tjara: Goddard, Cliff. 1993. A Learner's Guide to Pitjantjatjara/
Yankunytjatjara. Alice Springs: Institute for Aboriginal Development
Trudinger; Ronald M. 1943. Grammar of the Pitjantjatjara Dialect,
Central Australia. Oceania XIII: 3, 205-223

 Source: Rob Pensalfini (rjpensalMIT.EDU)

2) Basque: Nouns in indefinite NPs behave like possibly all Turkic
languages in using an invariant form of the noun with all numerals.
Examples: gizon bat `one man', bi gizon `two men' (Bizkaian gizon bi),
hiru gizon `three men'. Noun plurality may be marked, however,in NPs
containing definite determiners. One such determiner is the "ordinary"
or "definite" article -a, which is a suffix. Examples: gizon bata `the
one man' (rare), bi gizonak `the two men', `both men' (Bizkaian gizon
biak), hiru gizonak `the three men', `all three men'. References: La-
fitte, Pierre (1944), Grammaire basque, pp. 76-78. Saltarelli, Mario
(1988) Basque, p. 172.

 Source: Larry Trask (

3) Celtic: In Welsh (an perhaps in all Celtic languages), all
cardinal numbers obligatorily take thesingular of the follow-
ing noun (cf. ci 'dog', cwn 'dogs': un ci, dau gi, tri chi,
pedwar ci, pum ci, chwe chi, saith ci, wyth ci, naw ci, deg ci
... ('one dog, two dogs ... ten dogs'). There is, however, an
alternative partitive construction, especially favoured with
higher numbers, and here you get the plural: pump o gwn, chwech
o gwn ... (lit. 'five of dogs, six of dogs'). Any Welsh grammar
book will give you a reliable description. References: Ball, M.
(Ed) 'The Celtic Languages' Routledge,1993.

 Sources: Nigel Love (
 Martin J. Ball (

4) Chaha: In Chaha there is no plural morpheme (cf. at bet 'one
house', xwet bet 'two houses'), except in some lexically marked
plurals on a very small number of nouns (cf. at arc 'one boy',
xwet dengya 'two boys').

 Source: Banksira Degif Petros (

5) Chinese: Chinese does just what you wrote: yi tou niu 'one tou cow',
where tou is a classifier for domestic animals (and also a noun in its
own right meaning head).

 Source: Paul Woods (

6) Choctaw: Choctaw nouns are never marked for number under any cir-
cumstances. Number marking is diffuse and lexical, meaning there are
a variety of non-parallel strategies for indicating the number value
of particular nouns.

 Source: Marcia Haag (

7) Dutch: Dutch words for time intervals like kwartier 'quarter',
and uur 'hour' are always singular. Maand 'month' and jaar 'year'
usually remain singular. Seconde, minuut, dag 'day', nacht 'night',
week, and eeuw 'century' take plural morphology when there is two
or more of them. Meter, centimeter, kilometer, hectoliter, kilo-
(gram) and frank, always remain singular too.

 Sources: Bert Peeters (
 Patricia Haegeman (

8) English Creole of New Guinea (= Neomelanesian?): Here we
have examples like wan pela man 'one man' (lit. 'one fellow
man'), tu pela man 'two men' (lit. two fellow man). Similar
facts may be found in (some) of the underlying local langua-

 Sources: Brian Drayton ( from
 personal communication with Anthony Arlotto,
 E. Wayles Browne (

9) Finno-Ugric: Hungarian has a plural morpheme -k. Yet, in spite of
plurals like toll(a)k 'pencils', one says egy toll 'one pencil, ket
toll 'two pencil', harom toll 'three pencil'..., sok toll 'many pen-
cil'. Further examples: kapu 'gate' has a plural kapuk 'gates'. Yet
we have hat kapu 'six gates'. Finnish works the same way.

 Sources: Roman Agnes (
 Edith A Moravcsik (

10) Georgian:Generally, nouns following a cardinal number remain
in the singular. Measure words are not used.

 Source: John Peterson (

11) German: Gerhard Helbig & Joachim Buscha, Deutsche Grammatik
says on p. 528 that some measure nouns (mostly feminines) dis-
tinguish between singular and plural in phrases like eine Flas-
che Sekt "a bottle of sparkling wine" - zwei Flaschen Sekt. A
list follows: die Buchse, die Dose, die Kiste, der Krug, die
Schussel, der Tag, die Tasse, die Woche... Other measure nouns
(mostly neuter) keep the singular: ein Stuck Zucker - drei Stuck
Zucker, ein Kasten Bier - drei Kasten (or drei Ka"sten [the pl])
Bier. Likewise: das Blatt, das Glas, das Kilo, die Mark, das Meter,
das Paar, das Pfund, der Sack... (the ... is in the original).

 Soruce: E. Wayles Brown (

12) Indic: In Hindi, a measure of time, distance, mass, etc. is
left in the singular with cardinal numbers numbers. Otherwise,
common nouns appear in the plural after a number. Measure words
are not used. As with Hindi, a measure of time, distance, mass,
etc. is left in the singular in Nepali. In addition, common nouns
here are generally left in the singular and one of two measure words
is used: janaa for humans, vaTaa for animals and things. This un-
doubtedly is due to Tibeto-Burman influence.

 Source: John Peterson (

13) Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia): Although one may pluralise
a noun by reduplication, this is a non-specific form of the plur-
al (cf. kucing 'cat', kucing-kucing 'cats'). If one wanted to say
five cats, it would simply be: lima ekor kucing 'five CLASSIFIER
cat'. I am pretty sure that 'lima ekor kucing-kucing' would get a
star, but I'll give it a provisional question mark. Reference: Mac-
Donald, R. Ross. 1976 Indonesian reference grammar. Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press.

 Source: Rob Pensalfini (rjpensalMIT.EDU)

14) Japanese: has no inflectional morphology for nouns, and thus ex-
hibits number invariance completely.

 Source: Steve Seegmiller (

15) Kiribati (= Gilbertese): The unmarked form bentira 'pencil' is
used for example in bentira 'four pencils' (lit. 'four.long unit
pencil') and a.botaki bentira 'four groups of pencils' (lit. 'four.
group pencil').

 Source: Martin Silverman (

16) Modern Persian:In an Afghan variety of Persian one can say yak
bacha `one brother', do bacha `two brothers', se bacha `three broth-
ers', char bacha `four brothers', etc. References: Any grammar of
Modern Persian. Also Carleton Hodge has numerous publications descri-
bing aspects of Persian structure.

 Source: Charles Scott (

17) Newari: This Tibeto-Burman functions like Nepali (see Indic
above) in this respect. The main difference is that Newari almost
always has a measure word after a cardinal number. Generally, only nouns
denoting living beings have a plural form. Reference: Hans Joergensen, A
Grammar of the Classical Newari. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1941. (Det
Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Hist.-filol. Meddelelser, XXVII, 3.)

 Source: John Peterson (

18) Niger-Congo: For Bambara, C. Bailleul (Cours Pratique de
Bambara, III: Types de Phrases. Imprimerie de la Savane. Bobo-
Dioulasso, 1977) only mentions CN Num, while C. Bird et al. (An
Ka Bamanan Kalan: Beginning Bambara. IULC, 1977) say an addition-
al possibility is CN Num Pl-Def (p. 43). Dogon seems to have just
CN Num (cf. Kervran, M.& A. Prost Les parler dogons I. Donno So.
Documents Linguistiques 16, Universite de Dakar, 1969).

 Source: Chris Culy (

19) Semitic: Semitic often makes "no statement as to number".
Nouns have regular plurals, but in counting you use the plural
form only up to 10 and then revert to the singular. In Hebrew
this is most normal with time words, which happen also to be a
small group of words that has a dual, as well. So for "yom"
(day) you count "yom exad", yomayim (the dual), and from 3 to
10 it's "shlosha yamim ... asara yamim." Then you usually switch
back to "axad-asar yom" (11), etc. Standard Arabic counting is
far messier with cases interfering, too, though all modern spoken
Arabics are more like Hebrew. (They don't have a syntax that would
allow complression into "a three-day conference" type of phrase.)

 Source: Bob Fradkin (

20) Siouan: Siouan languages mark number in the verb, not the noun.
noun, so there being no plural morphology for nouns, they are natur-
ally invariant with numerals (numerals are a sort of verb, actually
Some of the languages can mark number in NPs by choosing among var-
ious forms of the definite article, which marks positional/configur-
ational gender. Collections of things have a different configura-
tion from single items, so a different article.

 Source: John E. Koontz (

21) Turkish: Turkish and perhaps all Turkic languages have a plur-
al inflection -ler/-lar which is usually omitted if a numeral marks
the NP as plural (unless definiteness is expressed). Examples: adam
`man', adamlar `men', `the men', bir adam `one man', iki adam `two
men', iki adamlar `the two men', `both men'. References: Lewis,Tur-
kish Grammar, Clarendon Press, pp. 25-26, or Underhill, Turkish Gram-
mar, MIT Press.

 Sources: Edith A Moravcsik (
 Steve Seegmiller (
 Larry Trask (
 E. Wayles Browne (
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