Is there a language where I use less brackets?
August 27, 2013 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Linguistics filter: Are there languages with an inflection of whatever type that denotes indeterminacy in its category?

I am particularly thinking of indeterminacy in number here, inspired by this recent comment of mine. That is, are there any languages with a declension for both singular and plural nouns (+/- the dual), as well as a third representing an indeterminate number? Number seems the most likely thing to be indeterminate, but any other similar examples would be interesting.

I'm specifically not asking about, eg, neuter in German or other 'neutral' categories. I'm asking about marked indeterminacy.
posted by PMdixon to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Normal Japanese nouns don't have a plural. If you're talking about people, the suffix -tachi indicates a plural, but there's no such ending for things or animals. Sometimes you can indicate a plural case with the sentence construction, but often they don't bother and leave it for the listener to determine. (And verbs don't inflect differently for plural subjects or objects.)

Japanese permits you to leave out anything you think the listener could deduce from context or experience. Sentences aren't required to be complete. That's part of the source for the Japanese reputation for subtlety. It's not just plurals which are left indeterminate; all kinds of things can be implied without being made explicit.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2013

I guess that isn't exactly what you were asking for. There are no "explicitly singular", "explicitly plural" and "number indeterminate" cases. They're all "number indeterminate" cases, unless it's people and the -tachi ending is used.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:51 AM on August 27, 2013

There are languages where the unmarked form of nouns is what we would think of as an indeterminate plural, such as Welsh. See the entry for singulative number on Wikipedia.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2013

Singular "they" is on the rise as a gender-indeterminate pronoun in English.
posted by zeri at 2:48 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm confused about what you mean by "indeterminacy". Are you talking about evidentiality? Some languages have syntax for conveying how something is known, so you can distinguish between "There are three apples [so I saw with my very own eyes]" and "There are three apples [according to that guy; I didn't check for myself]".

Taking another interpretation of "indeterminacy", some languages have paucal number, meaning inflections which only distinguish few from many without specifying any exact number. But this isn't really any more indeterminate than regular old plural. Alternatively, some languages just don't mark for number at all (e.g., Chinese), so in some sense they're using indeterminate number all the time. But I don't think anybody has a syntax which distinguishes between "one," "more than one," and "I don't know or won't say anything about the number".
posted by d. z. wang at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

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