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Author: Greville Corbett

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Imagine we have less than a life-time to describe the words of a given language. We might start from the view that each individual word is a treasure to be described in exquisite detail. Indeed, it is one of the achievements of our field that linguists have found and described gems like the following:

  • Archi (Dagestan) has the word t’uq’ˤ. which is a stone post inside an underground sheepfold, which supports the stone roof.
In Archi the t’uq’ˤ is the stone posts supporting the roof of a sheepfold (Photo credit: Dr. Marina Chumakina).
  • Soq (Papua New Guinea) has the verb s- ‘stay’, which is anti-irregular. While typical irregular verbs (like English go ∼ went) have unexpected forms but mean ‘the right thing’ (went means ‘go in the past’), the Soq verb s- ‘stay’ is the opposite of that. Its forms are unremarkable, but uniquely in the language, its present tense covers the time period of the English present (‘now’). All other verbs have a present tense (sometimes called ‘hodiernal’) which covers the period starting at nightfall yesterday and running through to and including ‘now’.
  • Krongo (Sudan) has the noun m-ùsí ‘sorcerer’, where the initial m- tells us it is singular. The plural is nú-kù-kk-ùs-óoní ‘sorcerers’ with no less than four plural markers, each of which is found independently with other nouns.
  • Russian skovorodá ‘frying pan’ seems remarkable only in that you have to wait for the last syllable to put the stress on the word. But in the plural, the stress moves forward three syllables: skóvorody ‘frying pans’, which makes it sound rather different.
  • English dust. Yes, even English has some star items. The humble verb dust is an example of ‘Gegensinn’, that is, it means its own opposite. We can dust a cake with icing sugar (that is, putting on particles), the opposite of dusting the furniture (removing particles).
    Dusting – even elephants love to do it!

    But there is a danger with this approach: we may well manage a few hundred items, and leave behind an unpublished dictionary. Or we may publish Volumes I-III (A-F), leaving the user stuck for words later in the alphabet: this happens particularly with larger projects, when grand intentions meet organizational and financial reality.

    The alternative approach is to start from the assumption that all words in a language are the same. We soon discover, of course, that this is not quite true. There are dramatic generalizations to be made: we may find, for instance, that many words can occur alone, and some cannot. More generally different classes of words have different properties of combination with others. That is, we specify part of speech information (verb, noun, and so on). Consistent with this, wholly or partly, we may find regularities such as some words distinguishing tense while others do not. And real dictionaries embody such regularities as defaults. If an English dictionary specifies that compute is a verb, it is taken as given that it will have a past tense, that the form will be computed, that this past tense will be compositional (we know that what it means is a combination of the lexical meaning of compute and the grammatical meaning of PAST). And when a default is overridden, the information is given in the dictionary entry. For example, the past tense of go is went (and only the form need be given, since our default assumption about what it means will hold good), or that binoculars is a noun but lacks a singular.

    I have described not one, but two straw men, though I have met real people who came close to these extremes. The point is that the interest of the linguistic gems we started with comes precisely from the way in which they stand out against the backdrop of the general picture. We know that there are general defaults – otherwise speakers and hearers would not cope. We expect singular and plural of a noun to be linked by a simple formula, rather than by a stress-shift that dramatically changes the way the noun sounds, as with Russian skovoroda ‘frying pan’. So in principle we can start from either end (words are all different or words are all the same), so long as we have the other horizon in view too.

    Don’t forget to destress when using a frying pan in Russian… But if you can’t take the heat, time to get out of the kitchen!

    Of course, real people tend to feel more comfortable working from one end or the other; lexicographers are, arguably, more interested in the differences and linguists more in the generalizations. And there are important movements within the field where dictionary-makers point out the need for much more detailed grammatical information about individual words, and conversely where linguists point out that the broad classes we often work with need to be broken down into rather finer detail.

    A saving grace in all this is the possibilities offered by online dictionaries. We can present some of the richness of words in new ways. For example, rather than trying to describe what the pillar that holds up the roof of an underground sheep fold looks like, we can give a picture. The online Archi dictionary does this. And it provides the sound file, so that users can hear what the word sounds like. Indeed they can hear all the basic forms needed to derive its large array of forms (its extensive paradigm). What if the system of sounds comprising the words has taken years of work to unravel? We want to hear the sounds and see the system. This is something – among other good things – that the new Nuer dictionary offers.

    Browsing in the Archi and Nuer dictionaries makes us marvel at how different those words are, one from another, and perhaps from ‘our’ words. And yet they are all the same too – they all use the same Archi and Nuer systems of sounds, and they fall into parts of speech which are interestingly comparable to ‘our’ parts of speech (verbs and nouns are distinct, and so on).

    It would need several lifetimes for anything approaching a ‘complete’ dictionary of Archi or Nuer. But there are plenty of surprises whichever perspective we take: the dictionary entries tell us about the amazing differences between languages, but the innocent little markers (like v. and n.), and the sets of forms given, point to the equally amazing sameness.

    If you enjoyed this post, why not check out our favourite untranslatable words from the languages we work on.

Linguistic problem? Call in a violin

Linguistic problem? Call in a violin

Like brain surgeons, breakfast cooks and other professionals, linguists fall into two groups: believers and sceptics. Take the fact that wheat is singular in English and oats is plural. Believers are confident that there is a thoroughly good reason for differences like this, based on meaning. Sceptics aren’t easily convinced, and they talk shiftily about rules that once obtained but are since lost, partial regularities, conflicting motivations and simple exceptions. And things can get surprisingly heated, as in the linguistic skirmishes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which centred on the discussion precisely of wheat and oats. (The feelings and the porridge have cooled sufficiently for it to be safe to mention these contentious nouns again.)

Many oats = much porridge

We talk about one or more scalpels or spatulas (these are count nouns), but we don’t usually count health, wealth or porridge (these are mass nouns). Mass nouns in English are typically singular, as indeed wheat is. So nouns like oats are unusual in being plural, and having no contrasting singular. They are known in the trade as pluralia tantum ‘plural only’. (In contrast, there are languages like Manam where all mass nouns are plural – they treat them all like oats.)

It’s not just mass nouns. We also find that there are nouns which we would expect to be ordinary count nouns which are actually pluralia tantum nouns in English. Examples include scissors, binoculars, trousers, slacks … The believers, who believe there must be a good reason for these nouns to behave in this way, argue as follows: It’s as we’d expect. These are all nouns whose referents have symmetrical parts (usually two, hence they are often called bipartites). Case proven.

But wait: bicycle has two significant parts, emphasised by its form in bi- (rather like binoculars). Why isn’t it subject to the generalization? Why isn’t it like binoculars? And while we’re on it, how about bigraph, shirt, duo and Bactrian camel? They all have two significant parts but are normal count nouns, just like letter, skirt, quartet and elephant.

Even so (say the believers) it’s not just English. French has les ciseaux (plural) ‘the scissors’, Russian has nožnicy (plural) ‘scissors’. These are pluralia tantum nouns – that can’t be coincidences. And yet, sceptically speaking, French has le pantalon ‘the trousers’ and Russian has binokl ‘binoculars’, and both are regular count nouns with singular and plural.

There are indeed various “usual suspects”, which regularly show up as pluralia tantum nouns in different languages, with sufficient frequency to persuade the believers and yet with more than enough no-shows to leave the sceptics unconvinced.

To resolve the issue once and for all (!), we need:

  1. A new item (not one from the “usual suspects” list)
  2. which can have one significant part or more than one (so that we can evaluate the force of the semantic regularity)
  3. with two different terms, one plurale tantum and one not
  4. and comparable forms in different related languages

And then we shall have a clear prediction: more than one significant part >> plurale tantum noun, one significant part >> ordinary count noun. We could resolve the dispute. But where could we hope to find such a creature, outside the laboratory? Here a drum roll would be particular apposite, for it is time for the entry of the Slavonic violins.

In the Balkans, the Slavs have a traditional instrument called the gusle, pictured below. You can hear someone playing it here. (This isn’t to be confused with the East Slavonic gusli, which is quite different, like a psaltery or small harp).

Serbian Gusle

Now the key (sorry) thing for us, is that the gusle in Serbia typically has one string (see the picture). Or rather have one string, since it’s a plurale tantum noun. Got that – so far, gusle, a plurale tantum noun, a traditional violin with one string. Similarly in Slovenian. But a normal singular in Macedonian and Bulgarian. There are different forms in dialects, but the message so far is one string, may be a plurale tantum noun or not.

But then of course there are all those romantic Slavonic symphonies. With classic violins, with four strings. What do they call those? Well, Slovenian, Macedonian and Serbo-Croat all have violina, and it’s a regular noun with singular and plural. Not looking too good for the believers here.

At this point, to be sure we’re conducting the research properly, it would be good to be certain that we’re talking about a classic violin, and just one (not a whole bank of them in a symphony orchestra). Well here a Nobel prize-winner comes to our aid. Ivo Andrić won the literature prize in 1961. He is famous for The Bridge on the Drina. But for us, we need the scene in the book in which two people are practising a Schubert sonatina. That’s one (classical) violin and one piano. Given the popularity of the novel, it’s been translated into most of the Slavonic languages, sometimes more than once. Moreover, to help thing along here, there’s a handy resource, the Parasol site, which allows us to search the parallel translations (that’s von Waldenfels, Ruprecht and Meyer, Roland (2006-): ParaSol, a Corpus of Slavic and Other Languages. Available at parasol.unibe.ch. Bern, Regensburg). As expected we find violina in Slovenian, Serbo-Croat and in Macedonian. Bulgarian is unique in having cigulka, but again it’s a regular noun with singular and plural. In the East Slavonic languages (Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian) it is skripka (skrypka in Belarusian). A regular noun with singular and plural. But now in Polish we find the same root, skrzypce, but this is a plurale tantum noun. And yes, they all have four strings.

What about the keen concert-goers who speak Czech and Slovak? Well, they use housle and husle respectively. You can see, I think, where those terms come from, now applied to the classic violin, and yes, they are both pluralia tantum.

Didn’t Andrić mention gusle too? He did indeed, and gave it an important part (sorry) in his story. For the languages into which it is translated as an outside rather than local instrument it stays as a plurale tantum noun.

It gets better. The West Slavonic languages Upper and Lower Sorbian aren’t yet in the ParaSol corpus for this text, so we need to refer to dictionary sources. Stone (2002) gives three terms for ‘violin’ in Upper Sorbian: wiolina (a regular noun) and two pluralia tantum nouns husle and fidle. And it gets even better – the traditional Sorbian violin has three strings (see it here).

In a word, then, there are terms based on different roots, and they can be used of different instruments. But an instrument with four symmetrical parts is likely to be designated by a normal count noun, and one with a single string is likely to be designated by a plurale tantum noun. This is hardly in harmony with the world-view of the believers. But data are no bar to belief.