The interpretation of plurals in Tarascan and Spanish #2

Vazquez-Rojas_Mexico070509, originally uploaded by CLACS – NYU.

My four-week stay in the Tarascan area is now over. I was able to find answers to some questions, but as in every productive investigation, I was left with more open puzzles than questions solved. For instance, I corroborated that a nominal phrase in the plural form is always interpreted independently on the interpretation of other operators in the sentence. In that respect, Tarascan plurals are different from English plurals and Spanish plurals. I also realized, as I posted before, that the Tarascan language categorizes differently certain aspects of the surrounding world. For instance, in Tarascan one cannot count things like avocadoes. The strict correlate of the English expression “three avocadoes” is not possible in this language. To express this concept, a Tarascan speaker would say something like “Three round-pieces-of avocado”. The expression corresponding to “round-pieces-of” (irhákwa) is called a Classifier.

Tarascan has at least two classifiers, expressions that divide a homogeneous mass into countable parts. The choice of the classifier depends on the form of the countable units that one wants to divide up from the mass concept. There is a classifier for round things, irhákwa and another one for elongated pieces (the one used to count thinks like ‘tortilla’ or ‘corn’): ichákwa. A good question now is if the similarity between these two words motivates partitioning them into different morphemes, which in turn would entail that irhakwa and ichakwa are complex expressions composed by multiple units of meaning.

Classifiers in languages like Tarascan are crucial in the understanding of plurals, because usually a language that has classifiers does not need to have plural morphology. For instance, Chinese languages have classifiers but do not have plural morphemes. Our most common Indoeuropean languages have plural morphemes, but no classifiers. It has been said that languages have either one or the other because classifiers and plurals serve the same function of making groups of individuated objects. Yet, Tarascan has both of them, an unexpected fact under some assumed typological predictions. The presence of plural morphology and classifiers not only in the same language, but also in the same sentence, is a striking fact and its explanation will definitely call into question some current theories about the cross-linguistic meaning of plural morphology.

The fieldwork stage of the project is now over and now I am devoted to analyzing the data that I gathered on the face of the predictions made by current theories on the semantics of plurals. I am really grateful to CLACS-NYU, the researchers at UNAM with whom I had the opportunity to talk (Cristina Buenrostro, Samuel Herrera, Lucero Meléndez and Rodrigo Romero) and my consultants (Saulina Ascencio, Camerina García, Santiago Marcelino and Juan Bautista) for having made of this research period a wonderful academic and personal experience.

Violeta Vázquez-Rojas
PhD Candidate, NYU Department of Linguistics

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