In different languages reduplication of the root serves as a means to express plurality (Malay 'orang' - 'a person', 'orang-orang' - 'people') or a greater degree (Russian 'много' - 'many, much', 'много-много' - 'very many, very much').

But not in Chukchi. The Chukchi language has many interesting and unique features, the one that is, probably, the most striking is that some (not all) nouns in Chukchi have the first syllable of the root reduplicated in the singular number, and in the plural form those nouns have simply the root + the plural suffix (usually -т, joined to the root with a vowel that fits the vowel harmony of the word). For example:

Translation --- Singular --- Plural

Language --- йилыйил /jiɬəjiɬ/ --- йилыт /jiɬət/

Comrade --- тумгытум /tumɣətum/ --- тумгыт /tumɣət/

Soap --- мулемул /muɬemuɬ/ --- мулет /muɬet/

Worn dress --- кыргыкыр /kərɣəkər/ --- кыргыт /kərɣət/

My questions are:

  1. What is the logic behind having reduplication to mean singular? Or a language fact can have no obvious logic behind it?
  2. Does any other language have a similar feature?
  • Do the nouns that do this have anything in common semantically? In the case of mass nouns like "soap" it might be understandable that the singular should be specially marked (see singulative), and likewise for nouns denoting things that commonly occur in groups. This doesn't seem to apply to "language", "comrade", and "dress", but maybe with more data some semantic patterns might emerge. (What is the number-marking pattern for nouns that don't reduplicate like this? Is it simply zero marking in the singular and -Vt in the plural?) – TKR Jan 14 '14 at 6:09
  • @TKR - There seems to be no particular common semantic pattern in the nouns that reduplicate. The nouns that don't reduplicate have 2 kinds of singular: 1. some are just the root; 2. many are the root + a singular suffix. There are several singular suffixes, each noun that can have one is associated with a particular singular suffix. I thought about the possibility that the singular reduplicating nouns have the first syllable of the root as the singular suffix. Still, if that's the case, it looks also unique. – Yellow Sky Jan 14 '14 at 6:24
  • Have you had a look at Michael Dunn's phd thesis on Chukchi? That might provide an explanation. – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 15 '14 at 2:37
  • @GastonÜmlaut - I have that thesis and I read it, Michael Dunn discusses the reduplication in chapter 6 (page 108), but he only describes its morphological and phonetic mechanisms, and says nothing about the semantics/logic behind it. From what he writes I can guess that those reduplicated nouns used to be reduplicated in the plural, too, but now only a bare root is left in the plural form. – Yellow Sky Jan 15 '14 at 10:05

I can't speak for reduplication, but Tanoan languages of the central US have a system whereby some nouns have bare singulars and marked plurals, while others have bare plurals and marked singulars. The distinction usually falls along lines of animacy, although exceptions abound.

Perhaps this is a system (or the remnant of one) along the same lines? (Note: Are these words loan words? Could that make a difference?)

And as to your last question: Many linguistic phenomena have no apparent logic (apparent to us), because any logic they did have is obscured by time. For instance, English is well-known for its 'strong' plurals (goose - geese), which often seem random. But the history of English shows that these developed along very regular lines, which are of course lost to acquirers:

gos (sg) - gosi (pl) became via harmony gos (sg) - gesi (pl) became via weak vowel deletion gos (sg) - ges (pl) became via vowel shift gus (sg) - gis (pl) apparent wtf?

  • +1. Re: Tanoan languages: And IIRC, in at least some of those languages, the marking is the same for marked singulars as for marked plurals. – ruakh Feb 15 '14 at 7:52
  • +1 Markedness is the crucial factor - if in a given environment some entities normally occur in a multitude and more rarely one by one it makes sense that the shorter/unmarked noun refers to a multitude, while a marked form refers to a single instance - somewhat in the manner of 'rice' (multitude) vs 'grain of rice' (single item) in English. – Mario Elocio Nov 10 '14 at 20:42

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