The Grammar of individuation and counting

Suzi Oliveira de Lima: The grammar of individuation and counting. 2014 UMass dissertation.


Suzi Oliveira de Lima: From personal website

Are there languages that do not draw a grammatical distinction between count nouns and mass nouns? Some scholars have said there aren’t. Others have claimed that there are languages where all non-referential nouns are mass nouns. Henry Davis and Lisa Matthewson (1999) argued that in the Salish language St’át’imcets, all non-referential nouns are count nouns. Suzi Lima has been investigating another language with this property: the Tupi language Yudja (Juruna family). Lima’s dissertation is a game changer in fieldwork methodology: her findings do not just rely on the by now standard elicitation tasks for semantic fieldwork, but use a wider range of experimental techniques, including quantity judgment tasks and production and comprehension studies with children and adults.

Related work from SULA 8: Andrea Wilhelm made a case that in Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan) all nouns are referential. Nouns either denote individuals or kinds, they do not have predicative denotations at all. Amy Rose Deal suggested that in Nez Perce (Niimiipuutímt, Sahaptian), all notional mass nouns can have both count and mass denotations. What is emerging from this cross-linguistic work, then, is that languages have options for construing noun denotations. The possible options seem to be: reference to individuals, reference to kinds, singular, plural, or number-neutral atomic properties, and non-atomic properties. There are repercussions of whatever option is chosen by a language. A language that has no mass nouns should not have measure phrases, for example, and this is so for Yudja, as Lima shows. A language where all nouns are referential should not have intersective adjectives or restrictive relative clauses, and this is so for Dëne Sųłiné, as Wilhelm shows.  

Most recent work on the count-mass distinction in natural languages responds in one way or other to Gennaro Chierchia’s influential Reference to Kinds Across Languages, which is one of the most downloaded papers for Natural Language Semantics. With over 1400 citations, it is also one of the most cited papers in semantics.