NaP2019 – Number and plurality: cross-linguistic variation in the nominal domain (part of LinG2)

Meeting Description

Cross-linguistic variation concerning the presence of number marking, the count-mass distinction and the expression of plurality has been an inspiring source for hypotheses about the structure and denotation of nominals. One important challenge for current research is to figure out whether the different strategies for number marking systematically correspond to differences in the semantics of nominal structures or whether the cross-linguistic variation in number marking is orthogonal to semantic variation.

The different strategies languages employ for number marking have been attributed to differences in the meaning of nominals: Lucy (1992) speculated that Yucatec Mayan speakers “treat nouns semantically as masses” in order to explain the optionality of plural morphology and the need for numeral classifiers. If so, systematic differences in the quantificational properties of nominals depend on the available aspectual properties of the nominals (in the sense of Krifka 1989, Rijkhoff 1991, Champollion 2015), such that variation between (classifier vs. non-classifier languages) and within (mass/count) languages is traced back to a common source.

Partially building on these ideas, cross-linguistic variation in number marking was integrated by Chierchia (1998) (also Dayal 2004, Deal and Nee 2018) into a general framework of the possible denotations of bare nominals (the Nominal Mapping Parameter). This view captures the predicational and argumental potential of nominal structures. Thereby the presence/absence of number marking becomes intertwined with the presence/absence of determiners and classifiers in a given language.

The hypothesis that the denotations of nominals differ across languages raises the question how such differences relate to more fine-grained morphosyntactic distinctions between languages that concern the expression of number. One relevant insight from typological research is that a substantial part of the cross-linguistic variation regarding number marking is to be found in the lexicon, since languages differ with respect to the subset of the nominal inventory in which plural markers may or must appear for expressing plurality. Thus, number marking differs between animates and inanimates in some languages, between humans and non-humans in other languages, or between rational vs. non-rational humans in others (Smith-Stark 1972, Corbett 2004). Thus, the array of semantic distinctions that number marking is sensitive to seems to depend on lexical properties that differ cross-linguistically. A further source of morphosyntactic variation comes from the role of the plural morphemes in nominal structures, which have been argued to be heads in some languages and modifiers in others, an idea that was pursued by Wiltschko (2008).

Cross-linguistic differences concerning the count-mass distinction and the expression of plurality also raise the broader question whether these grammatical phenomena are closely related to conceptual distinctions that play a role in non-linguistic cognition, or whether this correlation is more indirect and permits systematic mismatches between grammatical and conceptual countability (as argued by Rothstein 2017).

The aim of this workshop is to bring together research on morphological, syntactic and semantic aspects of number marking and the expression of plurality that shed light on the observed cross-linguistic variation.

Possible questions include but are not limited to:

  • What are the ways to express semantic plurality cross-linguistically?
  • Which other semantic properties of nominals correlate with semantic plurality and the count/mass distinction cross-linguistically?
  • Are there cross-linguistic constraints on the meanings of nominals that relate to semantic plurality? If so, how could these constraints be explained?
  • What are the consequences of particular nominal denotations for countability, the possibility of plural marking, the use of classifiers, the use of determiners, and the predicational and argumental potential of nouns?
  • What is the division of labor between syntax and semantics in accounting for the constraints on plural marking?
  • To what extent can nominal expressions that lack morphosyntactic plural marking – such as conjunctions or singular quantifiers – behave like semantically plural expressions?
  • What evidence can be found cross-linguistically for the assumption that languages with bare nominals make use of covert determiners?
  • Do experimental methods provide new ways of approaching theoretically relevant questions concerning the interaction between nominal structure and the expression of plurality?
  • To what extent do grammatical plurality and the count-mass distinction correspond to conceptual distinctions that matter for non-linguistic cognition?


  • Champollion, L. 2015. Stratified reference: the common core of distributivity, aspect, and measurement. Theoretical Linguistics 41, 109-149.
  • Chierchia, G. 1998. Reference to Kinds across Languages. Natural Language Semantics 6, 339-405.
  • Corbett, G. 2004. Number. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dayal, V. 2004. Number marking and (in)definiteness in kind terms. Linguistics and Philosophy 27, 393-450.
  • Deal, A. R. and Nee, J. 2018. Bare nouns, number and definiteness in Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec. Sinn und Bedeutung 21.
  • Krifka, M. 1989. Nominal reference, temporal constitution and quantification in event semantics. In Bartsch et al. (eds.), Semantics and Contextual Expression, 75-115. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Lucy, J. 1992. Grammatical categories and cognition: a case study of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rijkhoff, J. 1991. Nominal aspect. Journal of Semantics 8.4, 291-309.
  • Rothstein, S. 2017. Semantics for Counting and Measuring. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith-Stark, T. 1974. The plurality split. In LaGaly et al. (eds.), Papers from the tenth regional meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, 657-671. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.
  • Wiltschko, M. 2008. The syntax of non-inflectional plural marking. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 26, 639-694.

This workshop is part of LinG2, the Annual Meeting of the Linguistics in Göttingen network.

LinG2 will also contain a workshop on “New Ways of Analyzing Ancient Greek, 1” to take place on Dec 13-14, 2019.