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Count and Mass Across Languages$
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Diane Massam

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199654277

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199654277.001.0001

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Semantic triggers, linguistic variation and the mass‐count distinction ⋆

Semantic triggers, linguistic variation and the mass‐count distinction ⋆

(p.238) 13 Semantic triggers, linguistic variation and the mass‐count distinction
Count and Mass Across Languages

Alan C. Bale

David Barner

Oxford University Press

Although most languages allow nouns to be used with numerals to express cardinality, they differ significantly in how they grammatically encode such expressions. Some languages, like English, require count syntax whereas others, like Mandarin, lack count syntax and typically use classifiers. Here, the chapter asks what appears to be a simple question: how do children determine whether their language makes a distinction between mass and count syntax? This question reveals itself to be subtle and difficult when languages beyond English and Mandarin are considered. The chapter argues that prototypical syntactic and morphological differences between mass-count and classifier languages are not constitutive of this typological difference. The use of classifiers, the combination of numerals with bare nouns, and even plural morphology can occur in both mass-count and classifier languages. As a result, such features cannot be sufficient for determining whether or not a language has count syntax. Instead, the chapter argues that it is the relation of these syntactic structures to their semantic interpretations that differentiates languages and guides acquisition. Only mass-count languages can specify exclusive reference to singularities in absence of classifiers or measure words.

Keywords:   mass, count, acquisition, semantic triggers, Mandarin, Western Armenian, English, Mandarin

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