Background and research questions

This project looks at the typology of singulatives. A so-far understudied category, the singulative is defined as a category that denotes a (single) unit and is formed by adding a morphological marker to a non-unit-denoting base, e.g. a plural, mass noun or a form not marked for number at all (‘general’ or ‘transnumeral’ nouns). The term ‘singulative’ distinguishes these forms, which bear a marker of some kind, from singulars which are unmarked bases in many languages. Consider the following examples:

(1) Baiso (Afro-Asiatic, see Corbett 2000: 11)

lúban ‘lion(s)’ (general number)

lúban-titi ‘a lion’ (singulative)

luban-jool ‘lions’ (plural)

luban-jaa ‘a few lions’ (paucal)


(2) Welsh (Indo-European, see Nurmio 2017 & 2019)

a. moch ‘pigs’, singulative moch-yn ‘pig’

b. ceirch ‘oats’, singulative ceirch-en ‘a grain of oats’


(3) Luwo (Nilotic/Nilo-Saharan?, see Storch 2014)

rìŋ ‘meat’, singulative rìŋ-ɔ̀ ‘a piece of meat’


(4) Russian (Indo-European)

gorox ‘pea(s) (mass noun)’, goroš-ina ‘a pea’ (singulative), also goroš-inka


(5) Kiowa (Kiowa-Tanoan, see Sutton 2010)

a. tógúl                                                   tógú:dɔ́                                    
young man.BASIC                                young man.INVERSE
‘young_man’ (SG/DUAL)                      ‘young_men’ (PL)

b. ɔ̀nsó:                                                   ɔ̀nsôy                                                                                           foot.BASIC                                            foot.INVERSE                                                                                             ‘feet’ (DUAL/PL)                                    ‘foot’ (SINGULATIVE)


As seen from these examples, singulatives can be both inflectional (taking part in regular grammatical number distinctions, exx. 1, 2a, 5b) and derivational (esp. in the function of denoting units of mass nouns, exx. 2b, 3, 4). The definition given above also encompasses examples of ‘inverse number’ (Corbett 2000) exemplified by example (5). This involves the same marker (-dɔ̀/-óy are phonologically conditioned allomorphs of the same suffix) being used for both singular and plural meanings, depending on the semantics of the base to which it is added. Welsh is an example of a language where the majority of nouns have an unmarked singular and a marked plural (e.g. merch ‘girl’, plural merch-ed) while a small subgroup of nouns overtly mark the singular meaning instead (like moch ‘pigs’). In Welsh, the singulative suffixes (-yn and –en) can also be used to denote units from mass nouns (2b). This type of singulative marking is found widely in the world’s languages. In such cases, the marker used is often polysemous and also found as a diminutive marker, as is the case with the Russian suffixes –ina and –inka in (4) (see Jurafsky 1996, and Di Garbo & Agbetsoamedo 2018 on the overlap of evaluative and unitizing functions).

This project challenges the view suggested in many previous studies that singulatives are a rare phenomenon and, by extension, not central to discussions about number and semantics. Despite being included in descriptions of several individual languages and language groups, there have so far been no comprehensive studies to chart this phenomenon typologically across languages and regions.

The main research questions of the project include:

  1. Morphology: What are the possible base forms for singulatives cross-linguistically? What commonly occurring patterns do we find and what is their significance to our understanding of number marking and grammatical systems?

Based on the typological work, we aim to set out a taxonomy of different types of singulative marking, including the type of bases from which they are built (plural,  mass, etc.) and the type of markers (inverse markers, markers that are also used for the diminutive, etc.). A major distinction will be made into inflectional singulatives, and the previously overlooked type of derivational ones (of the type gorošina ‘a pea’ in Russian) where the singulatives are not part of a regular number distinction.

  1. Semantics, usage and linguistic theory: To what extent does singulative morphology interact with semantics? How are singulatives used by speakers and what semantic, cognitive or social factors condition different usage patterns?

The factors behind grammatical systems which overtly mark the singular value instead of the plural require further study based on a comprehensive data collection. Why do certain words (e.g. ‘pigs’, ‘oats’, ‘meat’) have a basic form referring to ‘more than one’ and a derived form to denote ‘one’ in some languages, rather than vice versa? Most previous work takes this to be rooted in semantics (esp. Storch & Dimmendaal 2014, Grimm 2018 & 2012, Nurmio 2017): things which are perceived as an indistinguishable mass may be treated in the grammar as being primary in the form referring to that mass, rather than a unit from it. Likewise, some things are conceptualised as usually occurring in groups (e.g. certain animals and insects) and these may also have a grammatically unmarked form for ‘many’ for this reason. The semantic accounts draw support from cognitive linguistics, since the suggestion is that grammatical marking may be affected by how humans perceive and interact with the world around them. Haspelmath & Karjus (2017) suggest instead that the rise of singulative marking is primarily due to usage frequency: things which are more often talked about in the plural may also be grammatically unmarked in the plural sense, with the singular meaning marked overtly. They state that this usage-based explanation is not incompatible with the semantic explanation but call for more evidence for the kinds of semantic conceptualisations that are assumed to underlie grammatical distinctions. There are, to the best of our knowledge, very few accounts of the usage of singulatives and how speakers conceptualise the referents of different noun forms. For example, Andrzejewski (1960), writing on the Borana dialect of Oromo (Afro-Asiatic), notes that there is much variation between speakers and whether they use the general form or the singulative when referring to a single referent, but he does not elaborate on the reasons behind this variation. For example, does usage vary by dialect, register, etc.? Or does some variation in fact reflect how speakers manipulate the meaning of the word, for instance wanting to denote that there are a few distinct and countable pieces of e.g. meat, as opposed to a mass of it? One aim of this project is to study the usage of singulatives in languages which have them through fieldwork.

  1. Diachrony: How does singulative marking arise in different languages and families? What are the most common pathways of development and change?

What diachronic patterns lead to the emergence or loss of singulatives? Are certain patterns particularly common cross-linguistically and what does this tell us about the development of grammatical systems and language change? For example, when the same marker is used for diminutive and singulative functions, can one be shown to be primary historically? Jurafsky (1996) indirectly suggests that unitization is a further development from the diminutive sense, but this has never been tested quantitatively.



Andrzejewski, B. W. 1960. The categories of number in noun forms in the Borana dialect of Galla. Africa 30(1), 62–75.

Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP.

Di Garbo, Francesca & Yvonne Agbetsoamedo. 2018. Non-canonical gender in African languages: A typological survey of interactions between gender and number, and between gender and evaluative morphology. In Sebastian Fedden, Jenny Audring & Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Non-canonical Gender Systems. Oxford: OUP.

Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. 2000. Number marking and noun categorization in Nilo-Saharan languages. Anthropological Linguistics 42(2): 214–261.

Dimmendaal, Gerrit. Forthcoming. A typological perspective on the morphology of Nilo-Saharan languages. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

Grimm, Scott. 2018. Grammatical number and the scale of individuation. Language 94(3), 527–574.

Grimm, Scott. 2012. Individuation and inverse number marking in Dagaare. In D. Massam (ed.), Count and Mass Across Languages. Oxford: OUP. 75–98.

Güldemann, Tom. 2018a. Areal linguistics beyond contact, and linguistic areas of Afrabia. In Güldemann, Tom (ed.), The languages and linguistics of Africa. The World of Linguistics 11. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 448–545.

Güldemann, Tom. 2018b. Historical linguistics and genealogical language classification in Africa. In Güldemann, Tom (ed.), The languages and linguistics of Africa. The World of Linguistics 11. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 58–444.

Haspelmath, Martin & Andres Karjus. 2017. Explaining asymmetries in number marking: singulatives, pluratives, and usage frequency, Linguistics 55, 1213–1235.

Jurafsky, Daniel. 1996. Universal tendencies in the semantics of the diminutive. Language 72(3), 533–578.

Nurmio, Silva. 2017. Collective nouns in Welsh: a noun category or a plural allomorph? Transactions of the Philological Society 115(1), 58–78.

Nurmio, Silva. 2019. Grammatical Number in Welsh: Diachrony and Typology. (Publications of the Philological Society; Vol. 51). Wiley Blackwell.

Storch, Anne & Gerrit J. Dimmendaal. 2014. One size fits all? On the grammar and semantics of singularity and plurality. In Storch & Dimmendaal (eds.). 2014. Number – Constructions and semantics: Case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1–32.

Storch, Anne. 2014. Counting chickens in Luwo. In Storch & Dimmendaal (eds.). 2014. Number – Constructions and semantics: Case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 265–282.

Sutton, Logan. 2010. Noun class and number in Kiowa-Tanoan: Comparative-historical research and respecting speakers’ rights in fieldwork. Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication No. 2: Fieldwork and Linguistic Analysis in Indigenous Languages of the Americas, ed. Andrea L. Berez, Jean Mulder & Daisy Rosenblum. University of Hawai’i Press. 57–89.