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Scott Grimm Gives Talk at University of Buffalo

Friday, February 27, 2015
3:30 p.m.
Linguistics Department of SUNY Buffalo

Below is the topic and abstract for Scott Grimm's talk at University of Buffalo:

Grammatical Number and Individuation

This talk investigates the semantic basis of grammatical number systems and the countability of nouns. Most work on countability assumes a binary countable/non-countable contrast: countable nouns, such as 'dog', allow plural marking ('dogs') and accept modification by number words ('two dogs'), while non-countable nouns, such as 'sand', do not permit plural marking (*sands) nor modification involving number (*two sands). Opinion so far has been divided as to whether the countable/non-countable contrast is a substantial, ontologically-based contrast or if it is simply an arbitrary fact about grammars of different languages.

Based on cross-linguistic comparison and drawing on work in psycholinguistics and philosophy, I pursue an account where the realization of number is sensitive to conceptual and perceptual factors related to individuation, i.e. the propensity for an entity to appear as an individual unit. I discuss data from a range of languages which possess three or more categories of grammatical number, often distinguishing entity types such as "collective aggregates" (swarming insects, vegetation) and/or "granular aggregates" (grass, sand). From this broader cross-linguistic perspective, I then propose that the morphosyntactic organization of grammatical number systems reflects the semantic organization of noun types according to the degree of individuation of their referents. Nouns of different types are individuated to different degrees and can accordingly be ordered along a scale of individuation: substances < granular aggregates < collective aggregates < individuals. Noun types which are less individuated are on the lower end of the scale and are cross-linguistically less likely to signal grammatical number, while the converse holds for highly individuated noun types. Understanding morphosyntactic number categories in light of a scale of individuation avoids the difficulties binary accounts face, since languages may divide up the scale of individuation into any number of classes and at different points.

I then turn to the formal modeling of countability. Most formal semantic treatments of countability use mereology, or the theory of part-relations; however, I show that it turns out not to be sufficiently expressive to account for the broader typological data. I argue that it is necessary to enrich mereology with connection relations that model ways in which the referents of nouns may come together, resulting in the more expressive "mereotopology". I show that this extension leads to faithfully modeling the degrees of countability found across languages and overcomes problems in the countability literature, such as the "minimal parts" problem.

For more information on Scott's talk visit the UB Linguistic Department's website.