Reflecting the world around us: genders, noun classes, and classifiers

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

in The Languages of the Amazon

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199593569
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191739385 | DOI:
Reflecting the world around us: genders, noun classes, and classifiers

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A noun may refer to a man, a woman, an animal or an inanimate object of varied shape, size and function. A grammatical device can reflect the nature of a noun referent. • Small gender systems—typically, masculine and feminine—are realized through agreement on an adjective or a verb. • Numeral classifiers occur with numerals and quantifiers. • Possessive classifiers occur in possessive constructions. Or the same set of forms may appear in all these contexts, creating a ‘multiple’ classifier system. The existence of languages with ‘multiple’ classifiers in many contexts points towards an intrinsic unity of noun categorisation as a linguistic phenomenon. Various means of classifying nouns mirror the ways speakers view the world they live in. And if languages are in contact, they are likely to share the meanings and the means of noun classification. Amazonian languages are particularly rich in noun categorization devices. Over half the languages have genders which are typically inherited from the proto-language. Numeral and other classifier types are less frequent, and tend to cluster in compact areas. Many Amazonian languages of Arawak, Tucanoan, Witotoan and Guahibo families use the same set of classifiers in various contexts. Such multiple classifier systems are rare in the world.

Keywords: classifier; gender; categorization; shape; form; noun class; agreement

Chapter.  7832 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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