The interpretation of plurals in Tarsascan and Spanish

Vazquez-Rojas_Mexico061609, originally uploaded by CLACS – NYU.

Today it has been exactly two weeks since I arrived in Pátzcuaro to start my field research about the interpretation of plurals in P’urhépecha, also known as Tarascan. P’urhépecha is a language isolate -it has no known linguistic relatives, and it is spoken in the state of Michoacán, in Western Mexico, by approximately 100.000 speakers.

The first days of my stay here were devoted to find speakers of the language that would have the patience and time to help me out with my research. Some people kindly agreed to work with me. Two of them are from the village of Ihuatzio, and three others from the small town of Puácuaro. The two locations are approximately 50km (31 miles) from each other, but the variants of P’urhépecha spoken in each of them vary, sometimes in aspects that turn out to be of comparative importance to my research.

My research is about how Tarascan plural nouns are interpreted, in comparison to Spanish plural nouns, and this involves a survey of the contexts in which plural morphemes can and cannot occur in this language. The hypothesis that I am trying to test is that plural nouns in P’urhépecha have a different interpretation and syntactic behaviour from their Spanish and English counterparts. Tarascan plurals have a more limited occurrence than Spanish plurals. Many of the nouns that in Spanish could bear a plural morpheme –s without a problem, (say calabazas, ‘pumpkins’) in Tarascan can only bear the plural affix –icha under very particular conditions. One of those conditions is that the noun (without the plural) refers to a collection of countable things. And many of the things that in Spanish (or English) are considered countable, in P’urhépecha are not seen as such. For instance, the nouns for pumpkins, beans, avocados, flowers, tortillas, onions, and fruits and vegetables in general are not necessarily considered countable in P’urhépecha, and they are seen as a non-delimited collection of things: a mass, so to speak. These nouns can be used in their non-plural form and refer to a non-delimited collection of things that can contain one or more than one element, more or less in the same way in which English treats nouns like sand, or rice.

However, in some contexts the plural morpheme –icha can occur with one of these nouns, but then necessarily the resulting noun refers to a collection of more than one element: a strictly plural entity. For instance, we can say that John harvests avocadoes for a living using any of the sentences in (1) or in (2):

(1) Jwanu pikwá-sïn-ti kupánda
Juan harvest-HAB-3IND avocado
‘Juan harvests avocadoes’ (lit: Juan harvests avocado)

(2) Jwanu pikwá-sïn-ti kupánda-icha-ni
Juan harvest-HAB-3IND avocado-PL-ACC
‘Juan harvests avocadoes’

This use of the plural stands in contrast to languages like English, where one can say “dogs have tails” without entailing that each dog has more than one tail. In Tarascan it is infelicitous to utter (3), since it entails that each dog has a plurality of tails. The only right way to convey that general statement is by means of (4), where the noun ‘tail’ is in its non-plural form:

(3) # wíchu-icha chéeti-icha juká-s-ti
dog-PL tail-PL have-ASP-3IND
‘Dogs have tails’

(4) wíchu-icha chéeti juká-s-ti
dog-PL tail have-ASP-3IND
‘Dogs have tails’ (lit: dogs have tail)

So far, I have been able to test that in Tarascan some nouns that are considered non- countable can only take plural forms when they really involve more than one individualized element. The non-plural marked forms, however, are not necessarily interpreted as ‘singular’, since they can make reference to sets of one or more element (like in sentence1). The plural marker in Tarascan is thus not the exact correspondent of Spanish –s or English –z.

In order to make this inquiry, I have designed questionnaires and asked the speakers to translate some sentences from Spanish to Tarascan and vice-versa. But translations are not enough as semantic data. Hence, I have also designed some interviews where I show pictures and ask the informants to describe what they see. In order to collect negative evidence as well (that is, not only what can be said in a context in P’urhépecha, but also judgments about what cannot be said), I make some minor modifications on the sentences they provide me, adding or deleting plural morphemes in the scenarios at hand.

So far, my stay in the P’urhépecha area has let me attest directly that common place that says that different languages partition the surrounding world in different ways. The most interesting part of this statement is of course, to find out how that different semantic partitioning helps us understand how language in general is structured, which universal principles are observed cross-linguistically, and in which aspects languages like Spanish and Tarascan vary. Needless to say, this field trip has been an extremely enriching experience, not only in my academic formation, but also in my understanding of a different culture through the language they use.

Abbreviations used:
PL- plural
ASP – aspect
HAB – habitual
IND – indicative
3- third person
ACC- accusative case

Violeta Vázquez-Rojas
PhD Candidate, NYU Department of Linguistics

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