Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies

08.12. Colloquium on African linguistics: Singulatives (Nurmio & Dires)

“Singulatives cross-linguistically and in Eastern African languages” - Talk by Silva Nurmio and Rahel T. Dires (University of Helsinki) given within the digital colloquium on African linguistics and languages
  • When Dec 08, 2020 from 04:15 to 05:45 (Europe/Berlin / UTC100)
  • Where via Zoom
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In this paper we will present our ongoing project ( on the typology of singulatives, with some preliminary findings. A so-far understudied category, the singulative is defined as a category that denotes ‘one’ or ‘(one) 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 number). In some languages, singulative formation is closer to inflection; the two forms in (1) are in a singular/plural opposition, with the singular overtly marked. But in many instances the formation of singulatives is closer to derivation, as in mass-to-count derivation (2). It is also common to find diminutive markers (with the basic meaning of smallness or endearment) added to mass bases, where the derivative denotes a unit (Jurafsky 1996) (3). We include such examples in the definition of singulatives.
(1) Welsh (Indo-European): moch ‘pigs’ – moch-yn ‘a pig’
(2) Russian (Indo-European): gorox ‘pea(s)’ (mass) – goroš-ina ‘a pea’
(3) Italian (Indo-European): cioccolato ‘chocolate’ (mass) – cioccolatino ‘a chocolate sweet, praline’

As part of this project, we are building an as-comprehensive-as possible typological database of singulatives and their characteristics. The first part of the paper is an overview of different types of grammatical number systems with singulatives. These include split systems where nouns regularly have an unmarked singular and a marked plural but a subset of nouns mark number the opposite way (1). Other systems discussed are those with general number (see below) and inverse number markers. Singulatives denoting units from mass substances, often derived with markers that also have a diminutive function (2-3), are also typologically widespread.

The second part of the paper focuses on the singulative in the Cushitic languages (Afro-Asiatic; Mous 2012). In some Cushitic languages, nouns are commonly unmarked for number; when number is expressed, derived forms convey it (Mous, forth.). An unmarked plural (sometimes called collective) is frequently the base for the formation of singulatives (4). In the case of mass noun bases, as illustrated in (2) and (3), Cushitic languages tend to overtly mark the unit as well (5). There are also tripartite systems with general number (unspecified for number, Corbett 2000) and marked singular (singulative) and plural forms (6).

(4) Konso (Southwest Ethiopia; Orkaydo 2013: 88)
unmarked plural ƓinaɁaa, ‘ribs’, singulative ƓinaɁ-itta ‘rib’

(5) Iraqw (Arusha and Manyara Region Tanzania; Zaborski 1986: 269)
mass noun ilwà, ‘milk’, singulative ilwá-tóˀò ‘a drop of milk’

(6) Sidaama (Southwest Ethiopia; Kawachi 2007: 86)
general sina ‘branch’, singulative sin-čo ‘one branch’, plural sin-na ‘branches’

The aim of the wider project is to add to the description of grammatical number systems and highlight patterns of marking the singular value overtly, which is more common than previously assumed. The sub-project on Cushitic will contribute to the description of the linguistic expression of number in these languages which has not been investigated in detail.


Corbett, G. G. (2000). Number. Cambridge: CUP.

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

Kawachi, K. (2007). A Grammar of Sidaama (Sidamo), a Cushitic Language of Ethiopia. (Doctoral dissertation, University at Buffalo).

Mous, M. (2012), Cushitic. In: Frajzyngier Zygmunt, Shay Erin (Eds.) The Afroasiatic languages. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press. 342-422.

Mous, M. Nominal number in Cushitic in The Oxford Handbook of Number in Language, edited by Patricia Cabredo Hoffher and Jenny Doetjes. (forthcoming)

Orkaydo, O. O. (2013). A grammar of Konso (Doctoral dissertation, Leiden University).

Zaborski, A. (1986). The morphology of nominal plural in the Cushitic languages. (Veröffentlichungen der Institute für Afrikanistik und Ägyptologie der Universität Wien, 39; Beiträge zur Afrikanistik, 28) Vienna: Afro-Pub


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