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  Nov 2016


Wed Nov 16, 2016


05:30 PM - 07:00 PM







LINGUISTICS COLLOQUIUM: "Countability distinctions and semantic variation: toward universals of mass and count"


Abstract: Research in psychology has repeatedly affirmed a core cognitive difference between substances and individual objects. In languages like English, the mass-count distinction seems to reflect this difference grammatically: nouns describing individual objects are typically count nouns, while nouns describing substances are typically mass nouns. To what extent does this mapping between cognitive categories and linguistic encodings vary across languages? If the substance-individual distinction is a universal of cognition, is the mass-count distinction a universal of semantics?

In this talk I approach these questions through a close study of mass-count patterns in Nez Perce (Penutian), drawing from original fieldwork. At first glance, Nez Perce appears to falsify any proposed mass-count universal: all nouns behave like count nouns do in English. Yet it turns out that in very restricted grammatical circumstances, Nez Perce nevertheless reveals evidence of a standard semantic distinction between mass and count nouns. I provide an analysis of semantic variation between Nez Perce and English centered around how each language introduces apportionment -- the mapping from meanings like that of "sand" onto meanings like that of "quantity of sand". I conclude by showing how the Nez Perce pattern actually ends up providing new support for a proposed mass-count universal.


Amy Rose Deal (Assistant Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley)