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English makes a difference between count nouns (also known as countable nouns) and mass nouns (also known as uncountable nouns).

  • Count noun: One cat, two cats, few cats.
  • Mass noun: Some information, little information.
  • (Both depending on sense: One beer, two beers, few beers, some beer, little beer.)

(The third case is the least clear though since it seems ambiguous to people not familiar with the concept so we shouldn't dwell on it for this question.)

But I haven't come across this in the other languages in which I've dabbled other than seeing some mention of it with regard to Swedish on Wiktionary where I couldn't tell if it was established Swedish grammar or one editor overextending similarities between Swedish and English.

How common is noun countability in Indo-European languages, how common is it in other language families?


Notes for those unfamiliar with the concept of countability

  1. Mass nouns are a different phenomenon to invariant nouns which have only one form for both singular and plural such as English "sheep" so be sure not to confuse the two in your answers where you include examples from other languages.
  2. Defective nouns which have only a singular form or only a plural form (plurale tantum) such as "clothes" are also a different phenomenon to mass nouns.
  3. Mass nouns can be distinguished from invariant and defective nouns in that they cannot occur with the indefinite article, with numbers, or words like "many" and "several"; and they can occur with words like "much".
  4. Count nouns on the other hand can occur with the indefinite article, with numbers, or the word "many"; but not with the word "much".

    • * An advice
    • A sheep
    • * Two advice
    • Two sheep
    • * Many advice
    • Many sheep
    • * Several advice
    • Several sheep
    • Much advice
    • * Much sheep
  • I think that if you wrote "uncountable noun" instead of "mass noun" it would be less misunderstood (although I understood you meant that). But I wanted to ask, are you asking for us to make some example in other languages? I could bring Italian into the show, but I don't know if that is what you're looking for. :) – Alenanno Sep 16 '11 at 17:42
  • Well a reference or a few examples would suffice to support an answer. As for "uncountable" vs "mass", in other places I've discussed this "mass" seemed to be the more acceptable. People would misunderstand and say things like "but I can count glasses of water", but to me it doesn't make much difference, whatever is broadly understood. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 18:35
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+100

Extensive typological study doesn't appear to have been done on this. However, this is probably so because it has been difficult to say precisely what the mass/count distinction is about.

What we can understand is that the mass/count distinction tracks (imperfectly) an important human cognitive distinction between objects (or, countables) and substances (or, uncountables, "fake mass nouns" like furniture aside). As with many conceptual distinctions, different languages may mark the difference overtly, others may not. To give a different example, a language like West Greenlandic has a host of "pluractional" morphemes that attach to verbs, one of which indicates whether an event description picks out a series of iterative events, or whether it picks out a single event of continuous extent. English doesn't have such morphemes, but interestingly in this language we see certain event descriptions as underdetermining the two uses (e.g., John ran more than Mary last year, if true, can mean he ran on more occasions (iterative), or for a greater temporal or spatial extent (continuative)). So a conceptual distinction that is overtly marked in West Greenlandic is left implicit in English.

Similarly, English does not mark mass occurrences of nouns, but marks individual (with the indefinite article a(n)) and plural (with the -s suffix) occurrences of nouns. The bare form of a noun is often understood on a material reading (which is why the gruesome interpretation in There was boy all over the road, as if uttered after a horrific accident), and singular/plural occurrences are understood as picking out a singularity or multiplicity of individuals that fall under the concept named by the noun. If a language, for example, doesn't have a singular/plural distinction, one might think that noun occurrences there are understood via a combination of the preferred conceptualizations of things falling under the concept (e.g., we think of boy best as describing individual boys, and water best as describing an unindividuated substance), and extralinguistic context. The grammar doesn't force such speakers to express which conception they intend.

An oft-discussed counterexample to the idea that the distinction is universal, is the claim that all nouns are actually mass in Chinese---"count" nouns don't exist except in the sense that they are "built up" in combination with classifiers. However, as Cheng and Sybesma argue, and Chierchia accepts, even this language has reflexes of the conceptual distinction---i.e., it uses only "classifiers" for nouns that are understood as "count" (i.e., highly individuated), and only "massifiers" for those understood as "mass" (i.e., low individuation).

In sum, the role of grammar seems to be specifying what kind of conceptualization we're after. In English, there are a lot of nouns that are comfortable occurring as either mass or count, the difference ending up in whether we want to express a notion of the material, rock, or that of some quantity of individuals comprised of that material, rocks. Other occurrences, like muds seem less acceptable, but this could just be a matter of the frequency with which we encounter individuated MUD; if we can talk about kinds of muds or jars that contain some mud in a context, so that I bought three muds at the mud store isn't really so bad. Extralinguistic context can help us individuate even under the concept MUD.

Whether a language uses grammar to express the mass/count distinction will be a fact about particular languages, but the conceptual distinction is likely universal. (Hat tip to Dustin Chacón for discussion of Chinese.)

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  • Yes muds could be due to frequency but there are also more abstract terms which are clearly always wrong, such as advices, informations, etc. – hippietrail Feb 5 '12 at 11:48
  • And here's some good non-abstract uncountable English nouns: rubbish but × rubbishes, equipment but × equipments, slang but × slangs. – hippietrail Jul 1 '12 at 12:00
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    This "fake distinction" between real mass nouns and "fake mass nouns" does not sit well with me. (Neither does this "fake sense" of the word "fake" for what it's worth.) Do you also find grammatical gender used in many languages to be "fake gender" as compared to natural gender referring to male and female creatures? – hippietrail Feb 25 at 17:31
6

The book to check is once again Corbett's "Number", from page 78 and onwards. Unfortunately this is one of the features that WALS ought to have but doesn't. Doing a typological study (that is: actually going through grammars and counting which have the distinction and which do not) sounds like good and suffcient material for at least a master's thesis.

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6

Portuguese has this distinction between mass nouns and count nouns, as well. And some nouns can also be classified as both count or mass nouns depending on the sense. For example, in Portuguese informação (information) is a count noun, so you can say:

Preciso de duas informações — I need two pieces of information (literally, *I need two informations).

On the other hand, feijão (beans, in the sense of food on your plate) is a mass noun, so you have to say:

Eu comi feijão (and not *eu comi um feijão or *eu comi dois feijões) — I have eaten beans.

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    Don't worry @Octavio: it's extremely rare for any two languages to have a one-to-one relationship on any point at all. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 16:47
  • @Octavio: Yes nouns which only have a plural form have a special name from the Latin: plurale tantum, and are indeed another special case. Maybe I should add that in my notes too! – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 18:40
  • I've greatly expanded the explanation and examples so you can be sure not to confuse mass nouns with other phenomena. I hope this helps. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 18:57
  • Does the form "feijões" not exist at all? Are all ways to say duas/dois feijão/feijãos ungrammatical? I just want to be positive we've tested everything before I accept this as the answer. – hippietrail Sep 21 '11 at 20:28
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    The form "feijões" exists, but only when referring to the raw vegetable. When referring to the food (cooked and ready to be eaten) it is a mass noun. And there is the case when you refer to a bag of beans as "um feijão", something like ordering "one beer" in English, when you mean "one glass of beer". – Otavio Macedo Sep 21 '11 at 20:50
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I believe this distinction is very common among modern Indo-European languages, including the use of both with the same word depending on sense, though the latter is often less formal. I will also vouch for Latin and Greek, especially in poetry.

Dutch:

  • Bier is goed voor de sociale omgang. — Beer is good for social interaction.
  • Sommige bieren zijn beter dan andere, omdat ze meer alcohol bevatten. — Some beers are better than others, because they contain more alcohol.

I am quite convinced that this is (almost) universal among the Germanic languages.

French:

  • Veux-tu de la bière? — Do you want beer?
  • Deux bières, s'il vous plaît. — Two beers, please.

Latin:

  • Amor patris maior est matris. — My love for father is greater than for mother.
  • Plures amores habebat iuvenis. — He had several loves/lovers as a youth.

Of course this doesn't mean that the distinctions work exactly the same way in all languages. In Dutch, for example, you would not use the plural bieren if you wanted to order two beers, as opposed to French and English: you'd just ask for twee bier (singular).

There are also plenty of words in other languages that cannot be pluralized:

Dutch:

  • Ik heb wat informatie voor U. — I have some information for you.
  • *Ik heb informaties voor U (impossible).

You could say ik heb een beetje ("a bit") informatie; it would be grammatically correct, but far less common than ik heb wat informatie, which means the same.

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  • But are there nouns which can't be pluralized in their normal sense and other nouns which cannot be used with a word like "some" in their normal sense. I always have a hard time explaining the difference to German and French speakers who keep saying things like "informations" and "advices". – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 16:40
  • @hippietrail: Yes, there are. Let me add them. – Cerberus Sep 16 '11 at 16:43
  • At the moment you seem to have only answered for the third case which being ambiguous is the least illustrative, if I am reading your answer correctly. Perhaps I should have separated and parenthesized that case. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 16:46
  • I think my expanded definitions and examples for English, I think you still think I'm talking about nouns lacking inflected forms rather than a syntactical feature. Let me know if this helps or not. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 18:59
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On the non-IE side of the fence, languages like Mandarin Chinese and Thai have a system of "classifiers" which are mandatory with all number + noun collocations (e.g. "two CL eggs"). The classifiers tend to apply to semantically coherent groups of words, like "round things" or "names for people" (though there are of course exceptions). This system amounts to treating all nouns as mass nouns. Since there are languages with this system but no (known) languages with only count nouns, mass nouns appear to be the default option in UG, with count nouns being marked.

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    Could you explain what is "UG"? – Alenanno Sep 16 '11 at 18:05
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    "Universal grammar" – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 18:18
  • Noun classes, classifiers, and counters is something else I'm fascinated with - but I don't really see the connection to the count vs mass noun distinction. I think it's interesting but maybe I just don't "get" what you're saying. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 19:02
  • @hippietrail, in order to count a mass noun, you need to use a unit: "three cups of water," "two sticks of butter," etc. Languages with classifiers essentially grammaticalize a small(-ish) set of units into the closed class of classifiers. Then they treat every noun as a mass noun. – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 23:05
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    @hippietrail Given your interests, you should really consider reading Borer's "Structuring Sense", especially chapter 4, where she quite explicitly elucidates (one take on) the relationship between classifiers, counters, singular/plural morphology (plural and indefinite article in English): they are all semantically stuff-dividers, they tell you, for whatever noun N they occur with, at least (a) if units of N are being described, and (b) how many of units of N are being described. – Alexis Wellwood Oct 5 '11 at 13:58
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It's also present in Italian, but let's see some examples. In Italian we have:

Countable Nouns: It's the same as in English, like:

Un libro, due libri — One book, two books

Uncountable Nouns: Nouns that belong to this category indicate unspecified quantities of a certain "something":

Un po' di pane — Some bread

Some nouns can have both:

  1. Prendo del caffè [uncountable] — I'll have (some) coffee
  2. Prendo due caffè [countable] — *I'll have 2 coffees (I'm ordering coffee for two people)
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  • We also have another category that I think English doesn't have. I'm referring to those nouns that have 1 singulars and 2 plurals, or 2 singulars and 2 plurals, or 1 singular and 1 plural. But since I didn't think it fit the answer for your question, I left them out. – Alenanno Sep 16 '11 at 22:53
  • I don't really understand your comment. If I did I think I would be able to pose some new questions on the site because it sounds interesting. – hippietrail Sep 17 '11 at 8:16
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    @hippietrail: There is a category of nouns that I didn't find in English. There are three groups as I stated above, for example the first one has 1 regular singular, and 2 plurals, one regular and one irregular. Sometimes the plurals are interchangeable, but other times they mean different things. :D I know it's off topic on this question but I felt like it was related. – Alenanno Sep 17 '11 at 8:43
  • Oh well there are English words with two plural forms, one irregular and one regular but I can only think of two off the top of my head where the plurals have different meanings. It was a perfect used of comments to stimulate further site activity (-: – hippietrail Sep 17 '11 at 8:54
  • @hippietrail: Here :D – Alenanno Sep 17 '11 at 9:35
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As a matter of fact, the count vs. mass distinction is too simplistic - see Goddard 2009, who has eighteen types of just concrete nouns, such as plural mass nouns (guts), plural names of dual objects (scissors), singular words for classes of unlike things (furniture) etc.

I like Jackendoff's Conceptual Semantics approach. He used two semantic features, [bounded] and [internal structure]. An entity is bounded iff it is indivisible (like a boy) and not additive (unlike water). If an entity is made up of separate individuals, then it has [+internal structure].

Thus, you end up having four possible combinations of those two features (please feel free to format it into a table):

+bounded, +i: groups (a team, a committee)

+bounded, -i: individuals (a person)

-bounded, +i: aggregates (committees)

-bounded, -i: substances (water)

I also like Anna Wierzbicka's Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach. The main tenet of that approach is that in different languages (and cultures) the boundaries for countability are different. For example, Russian 'gorox" (pea) is a mass noun whereas English "peas" is countable.

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    Interestingly, peas used to be a mass noun in English! So did cherries. The singulars got backformed. – user325 Jan 23 '12 at 23:30
  • Not sure about cherries in Old English but looking at some examples in the OED I'd say peas were countable in Old English (it had both singular and plural forms). – Alex B. Jan 24 '12 at 0:24
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    From the OED (entry for cherry, n.): The Middle English chery , chiri is not known till 14th cent.; it was probably derived < Old Northern French cherise (still used in Northern France), inferred to have given an early Middle English cherise , cheris , which was subseq. mistaken for a plural in -s , and a singular cheri educed from it: compare pea , chay , riches . It is hardly possible that the Old English ciris itself gave the Middle English word. – user325 Jan 24 '12 at 1:12
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    From the OED (entry for pea, n.): Back-formation < pease n., interpreted as a plural. – user325 Jan 24 '12 at 1:13
  • @ Knitter, I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear enough. The OE word piose (Pisum sativum) was countable and its plural form was piosan, pisan, or pyosan. See the OED entry "pease", section: Forms for more information and examples. – Alex B. Jan 24 '12 at 5:20
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Basque

Gazta asko jan dut cheese nude quantifier eat AUX-IT-I 'I eat a lot of cheese'

Gizon asko ikusi ditut man nude quantifier see AUX-THEM-I 'I saw a lot of men'

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