Need some help understanding classifiers

If you're new to these arts, this is the place to ask "stupid" questions and get directions!
User avatar
esoanem
hieroglyphic
hieroglyphic
Posts: 37
Joined: Tue 05 Sep 2017, 13:03
Location: Cambridge, UK
Contact:

Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by esoanem » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 14:30

Hey, a while ago I saw a post on tumblr about classifiers and it reminded me to go back and do some more reading on them (because I'd last glanced at them several years ago when I didn't know much and came away with the impression that a language with classifier systems is just one that treats all nouns as mass nouns, which I now understand isn't quite right). I think I have a vague idea of how they work in that they appear in certain situations (frequently when a determiner is given) with the noun and are (usually, but not always) fixed for a given noun.

Now, what I'm struggling with is distinguishing this from a system of noun classes which happen to be marked in the same way on all determiners (I know the two are interrelated, but people seem to treat them as distinguished in more ways than just the number of classes) and I'm wondering if anyone would be able to help me understand the difference with some example sentences/glosses.

Because, as I understand it, you could totally analyse French as having two classifiers, a masculine Ø and a feminine e and then just applying the usual rules of liason:

il est un homme
il est un-Ø homme
he is a-MASC man
he is a man

elle est une femme
elle est un-e femme
she is a-FEM woman
she is a woman

ce chat
ce-Ø chat
this-MASC cat
this cat

cette chatte
ce-t-e chat-e (+ some orthographic shenanigans to give the double t's)
this-FEM cat-FEM
this (female) cat
My pronouns are they/them/their

:gbr: native | :esp: fluentish | :deu: learning | :fra: learning | :rus: learning | :ell: lapsed | :navi: lapsed | :con: making a bunch
User avatar
Dormouse559
moderator
moderator
Posts: 2390
Joined: Sat 10 Nov 2012, 20:52
Location: California

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Dormouse559 » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 14:55

Like with a lot of linguistic questions, Wikipedia is your friend. I think the most convincing differences it lists are: Class tends to be marked through inflection while classifiers are independent morphemes. Class doesn't have to be marked in the same noun phrase as the noun being referred to while classifiers always appear in the noun phrase of the modified noun.

Both of those reasons apply to French. There is no stand-alone masculine or feminine marker. And we can see in your first pair of sentences that agreement extends beyond the noun phrase, with the pronouns il and elle (as well as verbs and predicative adjectives). Therefore, French is better described as having classes.
User avatar
DesEsseintes
cleardarkness
cleardarkness
Posts: 4463
Joined: Sun 31 Mar 2013, 12:16

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by DesEsseintes » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 15:02

Note also that some languages have both gender and classifiers. Abau is an excellent example, with two (or four? I don't remember) genders and a dozen or so classifiers.
User avatar
esoanem
hieroglyphic
hieroglyphic
Posts: 37
Joined: Tue 05 Sep 2017, 13:03
Location: Cambridge, UK
Contact:

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by esoanem » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 15:09

Thanks, I had read wikipedia's articles before and they'd certainly helped me move past the "everything's a mass noun" conception, but idk, it didn't seem to be helping me get over the next hurdle.

I think I understand what you're saying though, the long-range agreement with the pronoun is characteristic of class not classifiers and, were it a classifier system you'd expect something more like *il est une femme.

With the independent point, I was struggling to find examples of classifiers appearing independently in languages with undisputed classifier systems; all the examples I could properly get my head around seemed to use them when there was a determiner already as in un-e/un-Ø or ce-Ø/ce-t-e. What circumstances do languages with classifiers use them without a determiner?

(also I've just realised that this may not be the ideal board for this question, I'm not entirely sure. Apologies if it isn't)
My pronouns are they/them/their

:gbr: native | :esp: fluentish | :deu: learning | :fra: learning | :rus: learning | :ell: lapsed | :navi: lapsed | :con: making a bunch
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 17:03

Noun classes and classifiers seem to form more a spectrum of various classifying strategies than to have a clear cut distinction between them. Nevertheless, relevant differences between prototypical noun classes and classifiers are that noun classes are associated with agreement while classifiers not really so and that classifiers form richer and more open ended systems than what noun classes do. It's easier to add new elements to a classifier system than to increase the number of noun classes and you are much freer to use different classifiers on a single noun than to alter its class.

If you want a heavier but excellent read about noun classes and classifiers, I suggest you to get Aikhenvald's book Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. I still have to read the last few chapters of it from where I left a year ago, but so far it's been one of the most enjoyable linguistics books that I've ever read.
DesEsseintes wrote:Note also that some languages have both gender and classifiers. Abau is an excellent example, with two (or four? I don't remember) genders and a dozen or so classifiers.
It's also not rare to have two or more classifier systems working parallel on different aspects on the grammar but having more than one gender system is nearly unheard of. I think Aikhenvald only gives one language in her book where that is attested.
Nachtuil
sinic
sinic
Posts: 365
Joined: Wed 20 Jul 2016, 23:16

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Nachtuil » Fri 15 Sep 2017, 21:33

This will help: http://conlangery.com/2013/02/04/conlan ... ification/

Classifiers can definitely be used on top of noun class. I am making such a language myself actually.
Salmoneus
MVP
MVP
Posts: 1236
Joined: Mon 19 Sep 2011, 18:37

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Salmoneus » Sat 16 Sep 2017, 00:05

Numeral classifiers in Austronesian have some un-class-y properties:
- there are usually dozens of them, not just a couple
- it's not uncommon for them to be a semi-open class: while there's usually a 'fixed' list of them, it's possible to improvise new one where circumstances invite (so stuff like "one whale Jonah" or "seven alien Martian"). The high degree of variation in classifiers between related languages shows that these improvisations often get adopted into the local standard
- they are often (though not always) common nouns in their own right, and can be used as such. So as well as "two fruit apple" and "three herd sheep", you might find plain "two fruit" and "three herd"

Also, in possessive classifiers, it's common for the choice of classifier to reflect factors other than the nature of the noun, and hence to not be tied to the class of the noun in any way - you can say "your drinking coconut", but also "your eating coconut", "your treasure coconut", "your building material coconut", "your earing coconut" and so on. I gather that the same can happen with numeral classifiers in some languages.
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Sat 16 Sep 2017, 12:49

Salmoneus wrote:Also, in possessive classifiers, it's common for the choice of classifier to reflect factors other than the nature of the noun, and hence to not be tied to the class of the noun in any way - you can say "your drinking coconut", but also "your eating coconut", "your treasure coconut", "your building material coconut", "your earing coconut" and so on. I gather that the same can happen with numeral classifiers in some languages.
I think that to some extent this can happen with all nominal classificatory devices, even in gender systems. In Skou there are some nouns with unspecified gender that gets determined in use by their relation to human activities. Hence the word for "sago", hòe, can trigger either non-feminine or feminine agreement depending if it's thought of as food or not,

Hòe nì-fue.
sago SG1-see.NON-FEM
"I saw the sago." (growing there, not thought of as food)

Hòe nì-fu.
sago SG1-see.FEM
"I saw the sago." (being prepared, or just stored for food)

It's of course often tricky to draw a decisive line between classifying the qualities of a noun and its relation to an agent. Aikhenvald only draws a formal distinction between classifying nouns and relations in possessive constructions. This is where you can find languages with coherent systems for classifying the possessed noun or the possessor and for classifying the relation between the possessor and the possessed (relational classifiers). The section on relational classifiers begins with the quote that "Relational classifiers are unlike any other classifier type in that, instead of just characterizing a noun, they characterize a possessive relation between nouns." You could then perhaps say that whenever you have something approaching relational classification in other classifier types, it's a secondary feature of classifying the nouns themselves.

It makes sense that possessive constructions are the only place where you find developed systems of relational classifiers since the whole point of these constructions is the grammaticalisation of a relation between two nouns. In other areas of noun classification it's not that obvious what the relation to be classified should be.
Salmoneus
MVP
MVP
Posts: 1236
Joined: Mon 19 Sep 2011, 18:37

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Salmoneus » Sat 16 Sep 2017, 17:41

But there are other things a classifier can classify. A numeral classifier system might distinguish between collectives, distributives and so on, or even the nature of collection (like "four hand sheep" being "a collection of four sheep selected by a person" vs "four flock sheep" being "a naturally-occuring group of four sheep"). And there are, I believe, classifiers that classify by position, orientation and shape, which can of course change without a fundamental change of the noun (like, "four stack logs" vs "four post logs").

Anyway, I just know that in the past I've said that possessive classifiers are different because they are government by semantics as well as by lexicon (i.e. the same noun can take different classifiers, not just occasionally, but in a widespread fashion), and I've been loudly corrected by people who have said that the same thing happens in some north american numeral classifier systems. I can't remember which or how.
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Sat 16 Sep 2017, 18:30

Oh yeah, fluidity is a pretty common thing with classifiers. Choosing different classifiers for a noun may be done for example to get a different connotation, to mark a different shape or posture, or for plain derivation. An example for adjective like uses of shape based or postural classifiers would be for example getting cheap laughs from using a classifier for round squat things for people. A nice case for classifiers used for derivation is the Tariana word for "airstrip", karakawhyapuna, which uses the classifiers -whya for canoes and -puna for stretched things on the root for "fly" (hence "airstrip" = "a stretch for flying canoes"). And here's a classic list of the Burmese word for "river" being classified with eight different numeral classifiers for eight different connotations (pp. 2-3 in the PDF). All pretty similar to what you were thinking about.
User avatar
esoanem
hieroglyphic
hieroglyphic
Posts: 37
Joined: Tue 05 Sep 2017, 13:03
Location: Cambridge, UK
Contact:

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by esoanem » Sun 17 Sep 2017, 15:29

Ah, this all clears stuff up a lot I think. Think I'm going to try and implement a classifier system in one of my langs and probs post it up here (or, well, on the conlang board) once I've worked it out and hopefully that will help iron out any kinks in my understanding
My pronouns are they/them/their

:gbr: native | :esp: fluentish | :deu: learning | :fra: learning | :rus: learning | :ell: lapsed | :navi: lapsed | :con: making a bunch
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Sun 01 Oct 2017, 15:24

I thought this might be a good thing to add here. I got Nurse and Philippson's Bantu handbook last week on mail and the book has a handy table describing the typical semantic contents of the Bantu noun classes. I was already well aware hat the semantic coherence of the class assignment varies a lot from class to class but the description of the semantics of class 12 still strikes me as astonishing:
Katamba (2003) in Nurse & Philippson eds. (p. 115) wrote:Augmentatives
Derogatives
Diminutives
Amelioratives
That's quite a range. Basically you can think that the class stands for a non-neutral viewpoint. I'd like to know how much of this range is seen within individual languages and how much of it is due to language to language variation.
Salmoneus
MVP
MVP
Posts: 1236
Joined: Mon 19 Sep 2011, 18:37

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Salmoneus » Sun 01 Oct 2017, 17:18

gach wrote:I thought this might be a good thing to add here. I got Nurse and Philippson's Bantu handbook last week on mail and the book has a handy table describing the typical semantic contents of the Bantu noun classes. I was already well aware hat the semantic coherence of the class assignment varies a lot from class to class but the description of the semantics of class 12 still strikes me as astonishing:
Katamba (2003) in Nurse & Philippson eds. (p. 115) wrote:Augmentatives
Derogatives
Diminutives
Amelioratives
That's quite a range. Basically you can think that the class stands for a non-neutral viewpoint. I'd like to know how much of this range is seen within individual languages and how much of it is due to language to language variation.
Or you could see it as the class for meaning-preserving derivative nouns.
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 00:55

Salmoneus wrote:Or you could see it as the class for meaning-preserving derivative nouns.
Which, of course, raises its own questions if the derivation is achieved precisely by moving a noun into this class with no extra morphology applied. It'd be really interesting to know if this class can indeed act as a derivation for opposite meanings on different nouns in any of the Bantu languages.

In any case, that's a good idea to keep in mind for both classifier and noun class systems. If your language uses the change of class or classifier for derivational purposes, it's not out of question that the assignment of a particular class achieves a very different change of meaning depending on the noun that it acts on. Maybe there's a class or classifier that has an intensive association and depending on the noun it may get read as either "good" or "bad". Or perhaps changing a noun from a more semantically narrowly defined class to a default residue class in a rich noun class system could be a way for deriving any reasonably common associated meaning.
User avatar
Omzinesý
mayan
mayan
Posts: 2231
Joined: Fri 27 Aug 2010, 07:17
Location: nowhere [naʊhɪɚ]

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Omzinesý » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 10:19

esoanem wrote:Thanks, I had read wikipedia's articles before and they'd certainly helped me move past the "everything's a mass noun" conception,
Is "everything's a mass noun" conception just wrong?
Nouns without classifiers can however be specific without a classifier, I guess.
User avatar
Creyeditor
mongolian
mongolian
Posts: 3948
Joined: Tue 14 Aug 2012, 18:32

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Creyeditor » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 11:08

Omzinesý wrote:
esoanem wrote:Thanks, I had read wikipedia's articles before and they'd certainly helped me move past the "everything's a mass noun" conception,
Is "everything's a mass noun" conception just wrong?
Nouns without classifiers can however be specific without a classifier, I guess.
The "everything's a mass noun" view of classifier languages is a highly abstract idea in a certain framework of formal semantics. It made sense at that time, but it became a bit weird with semantic typology starting to discover more diversity. Also it never claimed to say anything about the meaning of classfiers, only about the meaning of nouns as a paret of speech in different languages.
Creyeditor
"Thoughts are free."
Produce, Analyze, Manipulate
1 :deu: 2 :eng: 3 :fra: 4 :esp: 4 :ind:
:con: Ook & Omlűt & Nautli languages & Sperenjas
[<3] Papuan languages, Morphophonology, Lexical Semantics [<3]
User avatar
Lao Kou
korean
korean
Posts: 5486
Joined: Sun 25 Nov 2012, 10:39
Location: 蘇州/苏州

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Lao Kou » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 14:04

Creyeditor wrote:
Omzinesý wrote:
esoanem wrote:Thanks, I had read wikipedia's articles before and they'd certainly helped me move past the "everything's a mass noun" conception,
Is "everything's a mass noun" conception just wrong?
Nouns without classifiers can however be specific without a classifier, I guess.
The "everything's a mass noun" view of classifier languages is a highly abstract idea in a certain framework of formal semantics. It made sense at that time, but it became a bit weird with semantic typology starting to discover more diversity. Also it never claimed to say anything about the meaning of classfiers, only about the meaning of nouns as a part of speech in different languages.
Talk about reinventing the wheel... Years back, when I was trying to explain to people like, say, my mother why Chinese nouns got the "a head of lettuce" - "a bar of soap" treatment for everything, I came up with "everything's a mass noun" all by me lonesome. It never occurred to me as something to outgrow or move past, or something highly abstract in the upper echelons of Linguistics 601 theory. Now knowing that it's an actual thing that "may have made sense at the time", I still feel it's a useful way to describe what's going on. (Well, you can't say "a table" in Chinese, so it's "a 張 of tableness"). If I were learning a language for which that schéma didn't work, I would move on to something more useful.
道可道,非常道
名可名,非常名
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 15:53

Lao Kou wrote:Talk about reinventing the wheel... Years back, when I was trying to explain to people like, say, my mother why Chinese nouns got the "a head of lettuce" - "a bar of soap" treatment for everything, I came up with "everything's a mass noun" all by me lonesome. It never occurred to me as something to outgrow or move past, or something highly abstract in the upper echelons of Linguistics 601 theory. Now knowing that it's an actual thing that "may have made sense at the time", I still feel it's a useful way to describe what's going on. (Well, you can't say "a table" in Chinese, so it's "a 張 of tableness"). If I were learning a language for which that schéma didn't work, I would move on to something more useful.
Where it works it's certainly a useful model to have, maybe just not a universally working one. Hasn't Roger Blench also compared the origin of the Niger-Congo noun classes with a three way general vs. singulative vs. plurative number marking found for example in Central Sudanic, so that singular and plural classifiers could have originally been used for individuating purposes and the bare nouns would have stood for the general concepts? That's probably highly controversial, but it's a thought nevertheless.
User avatar
Creyeditor
mongolian
mongolian
Posts: 3948
Joined: Tue 14 Aug 2012, 18:32

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by Creyeditor » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 16:58

OKay, mabe I should clarify. I was referring to Chierchia's (1998,2010) analysis. Of course it makes intuitively sense that e.g. Chinese only has mass nouns especially if you come from the perspective of a language like English. But the analysis made also some other assumptions. The idea was that there are three types of languages: Classfier languages, number-neutral languages and number marking languages. This idea has been overcome because there are languages that don't fit well into one of these types (Indonesian always comes to my mind, but I think there were some Southern American langauge that was conclusive evidence against only three types.) The other part of the analysis that was debunked is that there are no differences between mass nouns and counts nouns in Chinese. Cheng and Sybesma (1999) found that there are adjectives that are restricted to mass nouns and some classifiers are restricted to mass/count nouns.
Why am I writing all this? I think it was this/these paper(s) that made the classifier language = mass noun language popular (again) in linguistics. This is why the OP might have found it in linguisitic introductions to classifiers.
All of this is brought to you by me, reading the handout written by one of my Semantics teachers. Check out her Weppage
Last edited by Creyeditor on Tue 03 Oct 2017, 00:35, edited 1 time in total.
Creyeditor
"Thoughts are free."
Produce, Analyze, Manipulate
1 :deu: 2 :eng: 3 :fra: 4 :esp: 4 :ind:
:con: Ook & Omlűt & Nautli languages & Sperenjas
[<3] Papuan languages, Morphophonology, Lexical Semantics [<3]
User avatar
gach
MVP
MVP
Posts: 678
Joined: Wed 07 Aug 2013, 00:26
Location: displaced from Helsinki

Re: Need some help understanding classifiers

Post by gach » Mon 02 Oct 2017, 23:14

Sounds fair. Proposing universal typological groupings (of languages, or whatever) is always tricky since they are liable to be disproven by subsequent data.
Post Reply