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

Alan C. Bale and David Barner

in Count and Mass Across Languages

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199654277
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191746048 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Studies in Theoretical Linguistics

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

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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

Chapter.  9223 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Semantics

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