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Part 1

The discovery of nouns

1. Introduction

2. Classification of nouns in English

3. Nouns and pronouns

Part 2

Semantic vs. grammatical number

1. Number in specific languages

2. Obligatoriness of number marking

3. Number agreement

4. Types of number

5. Conclusion

Part 3


The discovery of nouns


The word “noun” comes from the latin nomen meaning “name.” Word classes
like nouns were first described by Sanskrit grammarian P??ini and
ancient Greeks like Dionysios Thrax, and defined in terms of their
morphological properties. For example, in Ancient Greek, nouns can be
inflected for grammatical case, such as dative or accusative. Verbs, on
the other hand, can be inflected for tenses, such as past, present or
future, while nouns cannot. Aristotle also had a notion of onomata
(nouns) and rhemata (verbs) which, however, does not exactly correspond
our notions of verbs and nouns. In her dissertation, Vinokurova has a
more detailed discussion of the historical origin of the notion of a

Different definitions of nouns

Expressions of natural language will have properties at different
levels. They have formal properties, like what kinds of morphological
prefixes or suffixes they can take, and what kinds of other expressions
they can combine with. but they also have semantic properties, i.e.
properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of nouns on the
top of this page is thus a formal definition. That definition is
uncontroversial, and has the advantage that it allows us to effectively
distinguish nouns from non-nouns. However, it has the disadvandage that
it does not apply to nouns in all languages. For example in Russian,
there are no definite articles, so one cannot define nouns by means of
those. There are also several attempts of defining nouns in terms of
their semantic properties. Many of these are controversial, but some are
discussed below.

Names for things

In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the definition of
nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a
person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, or idea, etc. This is a
semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as
being quite uninformative. Part of the problem is that the definition
makes use of relatively general nouns (“thing,” “phenomenon,” “event”)
to define what nouns are. The existence of such general nouns shows us
that nouns are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of
expressions are also organized in hierarchies. For example all of the
verbs “stroll,” “saunter,” “stride,” and “tread” are more specific words
than the more general “walk.” The latter is more specific than the verb
“move.” But it is unlikely that such hierarchies can be used to define
nouns and verbs. Furthermore, an influential theory has it that verbs
like “kill” or “die” refer to events,[2][3] and so they fall under the
definition. Similarly, adjectives like “yellow” or “difficult” might be
thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like “outside” or “upstairs”
seem to refer to places. Worse still, a trip into the woods can be
referred to by the verbs “stroll” or “walk.” But verbs, adjectives and
adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren’t verbs. So the definition is not
particularly helpful in distinguishing nouns from other parts of speech.

Prototypically referential expressions

Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically
referential.[4] That definition is also not very helpful in
distinguishing actual nouns from verbs. But it may still correctly
identify a core property of nounhood. For example, we will tend to use
nouns like “fool” and “car” when we wish to refer to fools and cars,
respectively. The notion that this is prototypocal reflects the fact
that such nouns can be used, even though nothing with the corresponding
property is referred to:

John is no fool.

If I had a car, I’d go to Marakech.

The first sentence above doesn’t refer to any fools, nor does the second
one refer to any particular car.

Predicates with identity criteria

The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a very subtle semantic
definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like “same” can modify
nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives.
Not only that, but there also doesn’t seem to exist any other
expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives.
Consider the following examples.

Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.

Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.

There is no English adverb “samely.” In some other languages, like
Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to “samely.” Hence, in
Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it
would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they
participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain
this, if nouns denote logical predicate with identity criteria. An
identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that “person
x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2.” Different nouns
can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is
due to Gupta:

National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.

National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.

Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence
above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn’t. It
is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who
travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In
that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million
passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus, the way that we count
passengers isn’t necessarily the same as the way that we count persons.
Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you may correspond to
two distinct passengers, even though you are one and the same person.
For a precise definition of identity criteria, see Gupta.

Recently, the linguist Mark Baker has proposed that Geach’s definition
of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the
characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur
with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are “prototypically
referential” because they are all and only those parts of speech that
provide identity criteria. Baker’s proposals are quite new, and
linguists are still evaluating them.

Classification of nouns in English

Proper nouns and common nouns

Proper nouns (also called proper names) are the names of unique
entities. For example, “Janet”, “Jupiter” and “Germany” are proper
nouns. Proper nouns are usually capitalized in English and most other
languages that use the Latin alphabet, and this is one easy way to
recognise them. However, in German nouns of all types are capitalized.
The convention of capitalizing all nouns was previously used in English,
but has long fallen into disuse.

All other nouns are called common nouns. For example, “girl”, “planet”,
and “country” are common nouns.

Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper
noun, where one such entity is special. For example: “There can be many
gods, but there is only one God.” This is somewhat magnified in Hebrew
where EL means god (as in a god), God (as in the God), and El (the name
of a particular Canaanite god).

The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may
be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example,
someone might be named “Tiger Smith” despite being neither a tiger nor a
smith. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between
languages, although they may be transliterated. For example, the German
surname Knoedel becomes Knodel or Knoedel in English (not the literal
Dumpling). However, the translation of placenames and the names of
monarchs, popes, and non-contemporary authors is common and sometimes
universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa becomes Lisbon in
English; the English London becomes Londres in French; and the Greek
Aristotelзs becomes Aristotle in English.

Count nouns and mass nouns

Count nouns (or countable nouns) are common nouns that can take a
plural, can combine with numerals or quantifiers (e.g. “one”, “two”,
“several”, “every”, “most”), and can take an indefinite article (“a” or
“an”). Examples of count nouns are “chair”, “nose”, and “occasion”.

Mass nouns (or non-countable nouns) differ from count nouns in precisely
that respect: they can’t take plural or combine with number words or
quantifiers. Examples from English include “laughter”, “cutlery”,
“helium”, and “furniture”. For example, it is not possible to refer to
“a furniture” or “three furnitures”. This is true, even though the
furniture referred to could, in principle, be counted. Thus the
distinction between mass and count nouns shouldn’t be made in terms of
what sorts of things the nouns refer to, but rather in terms of how the
nouns present these entities. The separate page for mass noun contains
further explanation of this point.

Some words function in the singular as a count noun and, without a
change in the spelling, as a mass noun in the plural: she caught a fish,
we caught fish; he shot a deer, they shot some deer; the craft was
dilapidated, the pier was chockablock with craft.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to groups consisting of more than
one individual or entity, even when they are inflected for the singular.
Examples include “committee,” “herd” and “school” (of herring). These
nouns have slightly different grammatical properties than other nouns.
For example, the noun phrases that they head can serve of the subject of
a collective predicate, even when they are inflected for the singular. A
collective predicate is a predicate that normally can’t take a singular
subject. An example of the latter is “surround the house.”

Good: The boys surrounded the house.

Bad: *The boy surrounded the house.

Good: The committee surrounded the house.

Concrete nouns and abstract nouns

Concrete nouns refer to definite objects—objects in which you use at
least one of your senses. For instance, “chair”, “apple”, or “Janet”.
Abstract nouns on the other hand refer to ideas or concepts, such as
“justice” or “hate”. While this distinction is sometimes useful, the
boundary between the two of them is not always clear. In English, many
abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes (“-ness”,
“-ity”, “-tion”) to adjectives or verbs. Examples are “happiness”,
“circulation” and “serenity”.

Nouns and pronouns

Noun phrases can be replaced by pronouns, such as “he”, “it”, “which”,
and “those”, in order to avoid repetition or explicit identification, or
for other reasons. For example, in the sentence “Janet thought that he
was weird”, the word “he” is a pronoun standing in place of the name of
the person in question. The English word one can replace parts of noun
phrases, and it sometimes stands in for a noun. An example is given

John’s car is newer than the one that Bill has.

But one can also stand in for bigger subparts of a noun phrase. For
example, in the following example, one can stand in for new car.

This new car is cheaper than that one.



In linguistics, grammatical number is a morphological category
characterized by the expression of quantity through inflection or
agreement. As an example, consider the English sentences below:

That apple on the table is fresh.

Those two apples on the table are fresh.

The number of apples is marked on the noun — “apple”, singular number
(one item) vs. “apples”, plural number (more than one item) — , on the
demonstrative, “that/those”, and on the verb, “is/are”. Note that,
especially in the second sentence, this information can be considered
redundant, since quantity is already indicated by the numeral “two”.

A language has grammatical number when its nouns are subdivided into
morphological classes according to the quantity they express, such that:

Every noun belongs to a single number class. (Number partitions nouns
into disjoint classes.)

Noun modifiers (such as adjectives) and verbs have different forms for
each number class, and must be inflected to match the number of the
nouns they refer to. (Number is an agreement category.)

This is the case in English: every noun is either singular or plural (a
few, such as “fish”, can be either, according to context), and at least
some modifiers of nouns — namely the demonstratives, the personal
pronouns, the articles, and verbs — are inflected to agree with the
number of the nouns they refer to: “this car” and “these cars” are
correct, while “*this cars” or “*these car” are ungrammatical.

Not all languages have number as a grammatical category. In those that
do not, quantity must be expressed either directly, with numerals, or
indirectly, through optional quantifiers. However, many of these
languages compensate for the lack of grammatical number with an
extensive system of measure words.

The word “number” is also used in linguistics to describe the
distinction between certain grammatical aspects that indicate the number
of times an event occurs, such as the semelfactive aspect, the iterative
aspect, etc. For that use of the term, see “Grammatical aspect”.

Semantic vs. grammatical number

All languages are able to specify the quantity of referents. They may do
so by lexical means with words such as English a few, some, one, two,
five hundred. However, not every language has a grammatical category of
number. Grammatical number is expressed by morphological and/or
syntactic means. That is, it is indicated by certain grammatical
elements, such as through affixes or number words. Grammatical number
may be thought of as the indication of semantic number through grammar.

Languages that express quantity only by lexical means lack a grammatical
category of number. For instance, in Khmer, neither nouns nor verbs
carry any grammatical information concerning number: such information
can only be conveyed by lexical items such as khlah ‘some’, pii-bey ‘a
few’, and so on.

Most languages of the world have formal means to express differences of
number. The most widespread distinction, as found in English and many
other languages, involves a simple two-way number contrast between
singular and plural (car / cars; child / children, etc.). Other more
elaborate systems of number are described below.

Number in specific languages


English is typical of most world languages, in distinguishing only
between singular and plural number. The plural form of a word is usually
created by adding the suffix -(e)s. Common exceptions include the
pronouns, which have irregular plurals, as in I versus we, because they
are ancient and frequently used words.


In its written form, French declines nouns for number (singular or
plural). In speech, however, the majority of nouns (and adjectives) are
not actually declined for number. This is because the typical plural
suffix -s, is silent, and thus does not really indicate a change in
pronunciation; the plural article or determiner is the real indicator of
plurality (but see Liaison (French) for a common exception). However,
plural number still exists in spoken French because a significant
percentage of irregular plurals differ from the singular in
pronunciation; for example, cheval “horse” is pronounced [??val], while
chevaux “horses” is pronounced [??vo].


In Hebrew, most nouns have only singular and plural forms, such as
sefer/sfarim “book/books”, but some have singular, plural, and dual
forms, such as yom/yomaim/yamim “day/two days/[two or more] days”. Some
words occur so often in pairs that what used to be the dual form is now
the general plural, such as ayin/eynayim “eye/eyes”, used even in a
sentence like, “The spider has eight eyes.” Adjectives, verbs, and
pronouns have only singular and plural, with the plural forms of these
being used with dual nouns.

Obligatoriness of number marking

In many languages, such as English, number is obligatorily expressed in
every grammatical context; in other languages, however, number
expression is limited to certain classes of nouns, such as animates or
referentially prominent nouns (as with proximate forms in most
Algonquian languages, opposed to referentially less prominent obviative

A very common situation is for plural number to not be marked if there
is any other overt indication of number, as for example in Hungarian:
virag “flower”; viragok “flowers”; hat virag “six flowers”.

Number agreement

Verb conjugation

In many languages, verbs are conjugated for number. Using French as an
example, one says je vois (I see), but nous voyons (we see). The verb
voir (to see) changes from vois in the first person singular to voyons
in the plural. In everyday English, this often happens in the third
person (she sees, they see), but not in other grammatical persons,
except with the verb to be.

Agreement in other lexical items

Adjectives often agree with the number of the noun they modify. For
example, in French, one says un grand arbre [? g??Юt a?b?] “a tall
tree”, but deux grands arbres [do g??Юz a?b?] “two tall trees”. The
singular adjective grand becomes grands in the plural, unlike English
“tall”, which remains unchanged.

Other determiners may agree with number. In English, the demonstratives
“this”, “that” change to “these”, “those” in the plural, and the
indefinite article “a”, “an” is either omitted or changes to “some”. In
French and German, the definite articles have gender distinctions in the
singular but not the plural. In Spanish and Portuguese, both definite
and indefinite articles are inflected for gender and number, e.g.
Portuguese o, a “the” (singular, masc./fem.), os, as “the” (plural,
masc./fem.); um, uma “a(n)” (singular, masc./fem.), uns, umas “some”
(plural, masc./fem.)

In the Finnish sentence Yoet ovat pimeitae “Nights are dark”, each word
referring to the plural noun yoet “nights” (“night” = yoe) is pluralized
(night-PL is-PL dark-PL-partitive).


Sometimes, grammatical number will not represent the actual quantity.
For example, in Ancient Greek neuter plurals took a singular verb. The
plural form of a pronoun may also be applied to a single individual as a
sign of importance, respect or generality, as in the pluralis
majestatis, the T-V distinction, and the generic “you”, found in many
languages, or, in English, when using the singular “they” for

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a word that designates a group of objects or beings
regarded as a whole, such as “flock”, “team”, or “corporation”. Although
many languages treat collective nouns as singular, in others they may be
interpreted as plural. In British English, phrases such as the committee
are meeting are common (the so-called agreement in sensu “in meaning”,
that is, with the meaning of a noun, rather than with its form). The use
of this type of construction varies with dialect and level of formality.

Types of number

Singular versus plural

In most languages with grammatical number, nouns, and sometimes other
parts of speech, have two forms, the singular, for one instance of a
concept, and the plural, for more than one instance. Usually, the
singular is the unmarked form of a word, and the plural is obtained by
inflecting the singular. This is the case in English: car/cars,
box/boxes, man/men. There may be exceptional nouns whose plural is
identical to the singular: one fish / two fish.

Collective versus singulative

Some languages differentiate between a basic form, the collective, which
is indifferent in respect to number, and a more complicated derived form
for single entities, the singulative, for example Japanese and some
Brythonic languages. A rough example in English is “snowflake”, which
may be considered a singulative form of “snow” (although English has no
productive process of forming singulative nouns, and no singulative
modifiers). In other languages, singulatives can be productively formed
from collective nouns; e.g. Standard Arabic ??? ?ajar “stone” ? НМСЙ
?ajarв “(individual) stone”, ИЮС baqar “cattle” ? ИЮСЙ baqarв “(single)

Dual number

The distinction between a “singular” number (one) and a “plural” number
(more than one) found in English is not the only possible
classification. Another one is “singular” (one), “dual” (two) and
“plural” (more than two). Dual number existed in Proto-Indo-European,
persisted in many of the now extinct ancient Indo-European languages
that descended from it—Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Gothic for
example—and can still be found in a few modern Indo-European languages
such as Icelandic and Slovene language. Many more modern Indo-European
languages show residual traces of the dual, as in the English
distinctions both versus all and better versus best.

Many Semitic languages also have dual number.

Trial number

The trial number is a grammatical number referring to ‘three items’, in
contrast to ‘singular’ (one item), ‘dual’ (two items), and ‘plural’
(four or more items). Tolomako, Lihir and Tok Pisin (though only in its
pronouns) have trial number.

There is a hierarchy between number categories: No language
distinguishes a trial unless having a dual, and no language has dual
without a plural (Greenberg 1972).

Some languages, such as Latvian, have a nullar form, used for nouns that
refer to zero items. Other languages use either the singular or the
plural form for zero. English, along with the other Germanic languages
and most Romance languages, uses the plural. French normally uses the
singular, instead.

Distributive plural

Distributive plural number, for many instances viewed as independent
individuals (e.g. in Navajo).

In most languages, the singular is formally unmarked, whereas the plural
is marked in some way. Other languages, most notably the Bantu
languages, mark both the singular and the plural, for instance Swahili
(see example above). The third logical possibility, rarely found in
languages, is unmarked plural contrasting with marked singular.

Elements marking number may appear on nouns and pronouns in
dependent-marking languages or on verbs and adjectives in head-marking

English(dependent-marking)Western Apache(head-marking)Paul is teaching
the cowboy.Paul idilohi yi?ch’igo’aah.Paul is teaching the cowboys.Paul
idilohi yi?ch’idago’aah.

In the English sentence above, the plural suffix -s is added to the noun
cowboy. In the Western Apache, a head-marking language, equivalent, a
plural prefix da- is added to the verb yi?ch’igo’aah “he is teaching
him”, resulting in yi?lch’idago’aah “he is teaching them” while noun
idilohi “cowboy” is unmarked for number.

Number particles

Plurality is sometimes marked by a specialized number particle (or
number word). This is frequent in Australian and Austronesian languages.
An example from Tagalog is the word mga: compare bahay “house” with mga
bahay “houses”. In Kapampangan, certain nouns optionally denote
plurality by secondary stress: ing lalaki “man” and ing babai “woman”
become ding lalaki “men” and ding babai “women”.


We have investigated the noun, the main part of speech in English
grammar. We chose the noun as the theme of our course work because we
interested in it. We used different kind of references to investigate
the noun. Nouns can be classified further as count nouns, which name
anything that can be counted (four books, two continents, a few dishes,
a dozen buildings); mass nouns (or non-count nouns), which name
something that can’t be counted (water, air, energy, blood); and
collective nouns, which can take a singular form but are composed of
more than one individual person or items (jury, team, class, committee,
herd). We should note that some words can be either a count noun or a
non-count noun depending on how they’re being used in a sentence.
Whether or not a noun is uncountable is determined by its meaning: an
uncountable noun represents something which tends to be viewed as a
whole or as a single entity, rather than as one of a number of items
which can be counted as individual units. Singular verb forms are used
with uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts etc
that we cannot divide into separate elements. We cannot “count” them.
For example, we cannot count “milk”. We can count “bottles of milk” or
“litres of milk”, but we cannot count “milk” itself. We usually treat
uncountable nouns as singular. We use a singular verb. Countable nouns
are easy to recognize. They are things that we can count. For example:
“pen”. We can count pens. We can have one, two, three or more pens. We
cannot say that it is finished investigation of this theme, because we
are going to continue its investigation in our diploma work.


· Beard, R. (1992) Number. In W. Bright (ed.) International Encyclopedia
of Linguistics.

· Corbett, G. (2000). Number. Cambridge University Press.

· Greenberg, Joseph H. (1972) Numeral classifiers and substantival
number: Problems in the genesis of a linguistic type. Working Papers on
Language Universals (Stanford University) 9. 1-39.

· Laycock, Henry. (2005) ‘Mass nouns, Count nouns and Non-count nouns’
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier.

· Laycock, Henry. (2006) Words without Objects. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

· Merrifield, William (1959). Classification of Kiowa nouns.
International Journal of American Linguistics, 25, 269-271.

· Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of native North America (pp.
81-82, 444-445). Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23228-7.

· Sprott, Robert (1992). Jemez syntax. (Doctoral dissertation,
University of Chicago, USA).

· Sten, Holgar (1949) Le nombre grammatical. (Travaux du Cercle
Linguistique de Copenhague, 4.) Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

· Watkins, Laurel J.; & McKenzie, Parker. (1984). A grammar of Kiowa.
Studies in the anthropology of North American Indians. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4727-3.

· Weigel, William F. (1993). Morphosyntactic toggles. Papers from the
29th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (Vol. 29, pp.
467-478). Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

· Wiese, Heike (2003). Numbers, language, and the human mind. Cambridge
University Press, ISBN 0-521-83182-2.

· Wonderly, Gibson, and Kirk (1954). Number in Kiowa: Nouns,
demonstratives, and adjectives. International Journal of American
Linguistics, 20, 1-7.

· Vinokurova, Nadezhda. 2005. [1] Lexical categories and argument
structure : a study with reference to Sakha.] Ph.D. diss. University of

· Davidson, Donald. 1967. The logical form of action sentences. In
Nicholas Rescher, ed., The Logic of Decision and Action, Pittsburgh, Pa:
University of Pittsburgh Press.

· Parsons, Terence. 1990. Events in the semantics of English: a study in
subatomic semantics. Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press

· Croft, William. 1993. “A noun is a noun is a noun – or is it? Some
reflections on the universality of semantics.” Proceedings of the
Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, ed.
Joshua S. Guenter, Barbara A. Kaiser and Cheryl C. Zoll, 369-80.
Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society.

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