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The Count-Mass Distinction : A Linguistic Misunderstanding ?


The Count-Mass Distinction : A Linguistic Misunderstanding ?

Date : 07-May-2018 - 09-May-2018
Location : Bochum, Germany
Contact Person : Johanna Marie Poppek
Meeting Email : < click here to access email >

Linguistic Field(s) : Cognitive Science ; General Linguistics ; Linguistic Theories ; Semantics ; Syntax

Call Deadline : 04-Oct-2017

Meeting Description :

Numerous publications bear witness that the count/mass distinction is a prominent topic in linguistic research. Despite its prominence, the distinction is elusive, and several key issues have not yet been resolved.
Many linguists and philosophers have some intuitive idea of a count/mass distinction, but formal theories eventually have to map their count/mass distinction to another arbitrary property. Lost in this process is the possibility that a binary distinction may be observationally and descriptively inadequate.

On the semantic side, some authors presuppose that count nouns make atomic denotations available in language (cf. Link 1983 ; Chierchia 1998, 2000 ; Rothstein 2010). Some of these approaches have been challenged by the homogeneous structure of count nouns like fence and wall. Additionally there are the so-called fake mass nouns, object mass nouns or superordinates such as furniture, silverware or lingerie that provide denotations with an atomic structure but unlike count nouns they do not make their atoms available in language. Even though Rothstein (2010) manages to solve these problems by introducing contextually related atomicity, it remains unclear what the very concepts count and mass mean apart from making atomic structure available. In Rothstein’s approach, the burden is shifted to a contextual function, which, however, seems to be present in every usage of at least some nouns.
While the aforementioned approaches are based on compositional semantic analyses, syntactic approaches such as Borer’s 2005 treatment of plurals as divisions have shed new light on interesting areas, but fail to integrate compositionality. A peculiar puzzle for the role of number in syntax and semantics is the fact that ‘mass’ nouns sometimes can denote pluralic entities, but require singular number agreement in many languages. This observation has severe implications for approaches as diverse as the Minimalist Program (Chomsky 2005) and HPSG (Pollard and Sag 1994) – both approaches assume that number is an interpretable feature.

The uncertainty around the count/mass distinction is further exacerbated by the observation that a binary distinction may not be able to account for the full range of data. Although Allan (1980) has already shown that nouns do not necessarily occur in all contexts that are usually labeled syntactically as ‘count’ or ‘mass’, the variation among nouns has been ignored with the exception of so-called dual life nouns, i.e. nouns that are both count and mass. Recent empirical research by Kiss et al. (2016) has put this issue on the fore again, by pointing out nouns that may be pluralized, but may not occur together with an indefinite determiner (e.g. additive, disadvantage, therapy and punishment), and also nouns that may occur together with an indefinite determiner, but may not be pluralized (blush, bosom and front).
Similar problems emerge if immediate grammatical consequences of a count/mass distinction are considered. Many grammarians assume e.g. that singular count nouns require the presence of a determiner ; but a closer look into the literature reveals that the relationship between determiners and nouns is either one of stipulation (if not circularity), or even reversed, so that we could instead conclude that determiners of a certain type need ‘count’ nouns as their complement, but not that the nouns actually require the presence of a determiner (as e.g. in Chierchia 1998).

Finally, broader typological research has shown that the count/mass distinction is not a necessary property of the grammar system (cf. Wiltschko 2012, Mathieu 2012, Lima 2014, 2016).
The purpose of this conference is to critically examine what we know about the count/mass distinction, and ideally to provide ideas and evidence that puts research on the count/mass distinction on a new level – even if this means that the count/mass distinction is replaced by alternative concepts (cf. CfP for details).

Call for Papers :

Here is a non-exclusive list of topics that should be addressed at this conference :

–What do we gain if we replace the locus of the count/mass distinction from the lexical level to the phrasal level or to the sub-lexical level, i.e. by evoking ’’senses’’ ?
–Is it possible to provide a formal account of the count/mass distinction that does not rely on a functional relation between singularities and pluralities ?
–What impact would it have on the count/mass distinction if we examined grammatical properties of count nouns independently (i.e. considering occurrences with indefinite determiners and plural inflections as independent properties shared by a subset of the nouns) ?
–What should be the status of ’’readings’’ of noun-occurrences that have played a role in the mass/count literature : grinding (’’armadillo all over the road’’), portioning (’’three beers on the table’’), sorting (’’eight beers on tap’’), evaluating (’’too much car for the average driver’’) ?
–What is the relationship between mass/count as applied to ’’concrete nouns’’ vs. ’’abstract nouns’’ ?

Abstracts and submission :

We invite abstracts with maximal five pages (plus up to a page of references) describing original work in the area of the count/mass distinction in PDF, no particular style sheet is required for the submissions.

The deadline for the abstracts will be 4 October 2017, 23:59 GMT+1.

Abstracts should be emailed to : tibor[at]

The notification of acceptance will be issued on 15 November 2017.

Organizing Committee : Francis Jeffry Pelletier, Tibor Kiss, Halima Husic, Johanna Marie Poppek

Invited speakers :
Gennaro Chierchia (Harvard University, USA)
Jenny Doetjes (Universiteit Leiden, The Netherlands)
Susan Rothstein (Bar Ilan University, Israel)

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