Noun: Number

March 29th, 20121:47 pm


Noun: Number

The category of number in English, like in most other languages, is expressed by the opposition of the plural form of the noun to the singular form.

The singular form coincides with the basic form of a noun, whereas the plural form is expressed by means of the formant -s (-es) in writing. Pro­nunciation of the formant may have the following variants (allomorphs): [s] after a voiceless consonant (books, carrots), [z] after a voiced consonant or a vowel (smiles, tomatoes), and [Iz] after sibilant and fricative consonants (cases, bushes). This is a so-called productive model of plural. It may also be defined as an open model, since neologisms usually follow this pattern in their paradigm.

There are other, non-productive ways of expressing the “singular – plu­ral” opposition. A number of nouns, following this pattern, is limited to sev­eral archaisms and borrowings from other languages. These patterns may be divided into the four groups:

(a) nouns with a vowel interchange in several relict forms (man men, woman -women, tooth teeth);

(b) nouns with the archaic affix ~(e)n in the plural form (ox oxen). It should be mentioned that sometimes the use of suffix is supported by phonemic in­terchange in a couple of relict forms (child- children, cow kine, brother brethren). In addition, some modem computer terms may follow this pat­tern, e.g. boxen, vaxen, matrixen. Some scholars predict a further increase of this usage given that many computer names end in -x (Crystal, 2002);

(c) nouns of Latin, Greek or French origin that preserve their Latin, Greek or French plural forms. The following plural infixes may be found in borrow­ings: -i (focus foci, cactus cacti, fungus -fungi), -a (stratum strata, medium media, phenomenon phenomena), -ae (formula formulae, antenna antennae). In a limited number of borrowed nouns there is a vowel interchange in the ending -is, e.g. axis axes, crisis crises. Here are some plural forms of non-assimilated borrowings from French: beau beaux, bureau bureaux, madam Mesdames. Mention should be made that there is a steady tendency to use regular English plural forms of nouns foreign in origin. Through the natural process of assimilation some bor­rowed nouns have developed parallel native forms, as in formulas, anten­nas, terminuses, focuses, stratums;

(A) in some cases the plural form of the noun is homogeneous with the singular form (sheep, swine, deer, fish).

The meaning of singular and plural seems to be quite obvious, namely “one – more than one”. This is apparently obvious for such correlations as book- boob, lake-lakes. However, there exist plurals and singulars that cannot be fully accounted for by this ready-made approach. Though plural and singular nouns are regarded as opposite, this opposition may become neutralized. Firstly, singular nouns may be used to express plural: trees in leaf, to have a keen eye. This is a so-called stylistic transposition that exem­plify synecdoche – the simplest case of metonymy in grammar. Secondly, the plural form, in its turn, may express size differentiation [heavens, sands, woods) defined as stylistic usage for the sake of picturesquеness, as well as various types of the referent (wipes, teas, cheeses), intensity of the presenta­tion of the idea (thousands upon thousands, years and years), or the opposi­tion “class – subclass” (fish fishes, fruit-fruits).

The extreme point of this semantic scale is marked by lexicalization of the plural form, i.e. by its serving as a means of rendering purely notional meaning.

Cf:    colour (tint) colours (flag)

custom (habit) customs (duties)

pain (suffereing) – pains (effort)

quarter (a fourth part) quarters (lodgings).

It should also be noted that some scholars distinguish the third member of the number opposition. Proponents of this point of view claim that the meaning of collective nouns may presuppose either a plurality or a unit and, respectively, collective nouns may be followed by verbs either in plural or in singular: The government has approved of the reform. Cf. The government are unlikely to work out a solution to the problem. Consequently, this may be brought as an argument in favour of a special status of these nouns. Some linguists call them doubly countables. This double-sidedness of collective nouns weakens the number opposition in English (Раєвська, 1967).

As it has been noted above, nouns are divided into countables and un­countables. The constant categorical feature “quantitative structure” is di­rectly connected within the variable feature “number”, since uncountable nouns are treated grammatically as either singular or plural. Namely, the singular uncountable nouns are modified by the non-discrete quantifiers much or little, and they take the finite verb in the singular, while the plural uncountable nouns take the finite form in the plural.

Noun: Number – Part 2

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