I am interested in the feature of number agreement for simple cases of "several nouns" in various languages.

Some languages featuring this agreement are e.g. English or Slavic languages (I don't know if it is featured in all Indo-European). I know it is the case also in Hebrew and Arabic (as before, I don't know if this is a feature of all Euro-Asiatic) languages. In these languages you say e.g. "five apples". You use plural although the numeral already conveys the information about plurality.

In other languages like Georgian and some Ugro-Finnic languages, the plural form is not used if there is already a numeral that gives us the information about plurality. In Georgian you say "ხუთი ვაშლი", not "ხუთი ვაშლები".

My questions are:

  1. How popular are these two types of languages around the world?
  2. Are there any papers analyzing this feature?
  3. Is there some correlation between this feature and other features of languages (e.g. Kartvelian and Ugro-Finnic languages are also agglutinating languages)
  • 2
    This is called number agreement. – J. Siebeneichler Jan 3 '17 at 11:52
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    You can see a marginal use of the non-redundant plural in English phrases like "a 2 mile distance", "a 5 pound bag". (I don't understand the belittling comments above to your perfectly legitimate question.) – Greg Lee Jan 3 '17 at 18:13
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    @zefciu Hence it is called agreement. Every agreement is, by this logic, redundant. He goes is basically [3-SG-M] go-[3-SG] where He go would perfectly do the job. – Eleshar Jan 4 '17 at 11:32
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    " I don't know of any Indo-European language that for a simple case of "X objects" wouldn't use the plural marking." - In Persian all numbers are followed by singular nouns. – fdb Feb 3 '17 at 16:59
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    In Irish, numbers go wih singular nouns – Mitch Feb 4 '17 at 1:05

This feature or lack thereof is common enough across language families. Besides Hungarian, Turkish and Georgian, it also occurs in Armenian, Persian and apparently Hindi, which are of course Indo-European.

But questions about popularity are very subjective as it requires us to decide what is a language and how to weight each language, for example Luxembourgish or some dialect of Bengali with far more speakers. Moreover the way the feature works varies a bit, so the classification is not perfectly binary.

The feature is not necessarily about number in the languages mentioned above, but any modifier that implies a plural, including much, many, some or a few. And often redundant pluralisation is theoretically allowed, but just very emphatic or otherwise marked.

In the case of Finnish and Estonian there are some nuances, in theory the form after a number is a singular form, but by the strict test they do not have the feature, the form used after 2 or many is different than that used after 1.

In some cases there is simply a specific word which does not require the plural, for example Italian qualche. English nil, zero and no also have some nuances. In other cases there are certain scenarios which do not require the plural, so for example in English one says fourteen stone, in German eine Million Euro, one orders zwo Bier and drei Stück Flammkuchen, viermal if necessary. In Slavic languages 21, 31... 101... 121... and so on agree like 1. But we would not consider this to be a feature of Italian, English, German or Slavic in general.

More happily, this set of features is relatively practical to test for with machine translation. Even if not completely reliable for each language, it can answer the question about the aggregate.

If Google Translate is to be believed, it is not really correlated with agglutination or other features like lack of gender, as it occurs in Hindi but not in Tamil. The feature seems if anything areal and unstable, that is, it varies between closely related languages.

  • Can anybody find this feature in WALS? I could not. – Adam Bittlingmayer Dec 26 '18 at 14:07

In most Berber languages (In Riffian, a numeral does not agree with a noun), agreement for numerals concerns the number and the gender. The noun agrees in number with the numeral and, inversely, the numeral agrees in gender with the noun. An example from Kabyle:

yiwen n wergaz

one GEN man

one man

sen n yirgazen

two GEN men

two men

sen-t n tillawin

two-F GEN women

two women

That leads to another issue, which is the head? In Berber, numerals are included inside a genetival construction. The numeral behaves as the head of a standard genetival construction, but it agrees as a modifier (because it agrees in gender with the noun).

A discussion about this issue in WALS: https://wals.info/chapter/89


In many languages the word-form after a numeral can be considered a separate case.

For instance, in English we say "five million" instead of "five millions". In Russian the word for million would be plural in this case, but, say, the word for "gram" would be in singular form:

пуля весит девять грамм "bullet weights nine gram"

на этой шкале нет граммов "this scale has no grams"

Some Russian linguists thus consider it a separate, "Numerative" case, which has special morphological forms for many units of measurement, soldier troop types, paired items and some vegetables.

I think, in English this usage also can be considered a morphological case, even though English is usually considered not having morphological cases in nouns.

  • The possessive with 's is (synchronically and diachronically) a morphological case. – fdb Feb 3 '17 at 17:03
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    @fdb no, it is a clitic: "president and premier's duties" or "premier and president's duties" - the clitic changes place depending on the order of similar items. – Anixx Feb 3 '17 at 17:34
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    Wouldn't it be simpler to treat five million as a whole as the numeral? Just like five hundred, not *five hundreds. – Marc Schütz Feb 7 '17 at 13:57
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    @the same happens with gram/grams and other nouns. – Anixx Feb 7 '17 at 14:06
  • -1: this is an anecdotal evidence, not an attempt to answer the question. – bytebuster May 4 '17 at 16:09

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