1 Introduction

Current research on the nominal spine (1a) supports the idea that number can be associated with different positions. Much of the work on nominal number contrasts a “high” positiaon in Num that hosts grammatical number and a “low” position in n that hosts idiosyncratic, adjunct, or lexical number.1 Comparatively little research has examined where number is located in pronouns. While it is clear that pronouns involve φ-features that typically include person (π) and number (#) as a bundle, it is not clear where these features occur in relation to other nominal projections,2 nor whether pronouns have the full complement of nominal projections that nominals have.3 A possible proposal for pronominal structure, in which number is not a separate head, is shown in (1b).

(1)

  • Nominal structure

    [DP D [NumP Num [nP n [√P Root]]]]

  • Pronominal structure

    [DP D [φP φ [nP n [P Root]]]]

    (φ includes #, π)

In this squib, we illustrate with two case studies that grammatical number in the nominal and pronominal domains is fundamentally different. We propose that this difference follows from a deeper principle: namely, that grammatical number forms a part of the nominal spine (see Wiltschko 2008, 2014) and very often plays an individuating role in nominals, in contrast with other types of nominal number and with number in pronominals, which plays a featurally bundled role,4 subordinated to person. We first isolate seven key differences between the two systems, as follows:5

(2)

  • There are languages in which number is marked on pronouns but not on other nominals, giving rise to the top of Corbett’s Animacy Hierarchy (Corbett 2000:54–66).

  • Number in pronominals is usually different in morphophonological form from number in nominals (Daniel 2013).6

  • Associativity is often marked on nominals but rarely on pronominals.

  • Number can instantiate differences in formality in pronominals, not nominals.

  • Number can be systematically marked twice on pronominals, while double number marking on nominals tends to be idiosyncratic and/or limited to a particular noun class.

  • Number contrasts in pronominals can differ from those in nominals.

  • Pronominal number is compatible with the feature proper, whereas nominal number is not.

The first two differences, in (2a) and (2b), point to the connection between number and person in pronominals. In languages in which number is marked only on pronouns, its presence is dependent on person marking, and in the languages in which it is realized differently from number marking on nouns, it is typically bundled with person in a single unanalyzable stem or affix (Daniel 2013). In a similar vein, Moravcsik (2017), citing Helmbrecht (2004), observes that reduplication is a common way to iconically mark additive plurals on nouns but that it is unattested for plural pronouns. Even in cases where plural marking on pronouns and nominals appears to be the same, there turn out to be other ways in which the number marking is atypical. For instance, Daniel (2013:sec. 5.5) notes that where a plural marker on pronouns is optional—something that is unexpected—it is often the same marker that is used on nominals.

Not only does number on pronouns and nominals tend to be different in form, it also seems to be different in meaning (Cysouw 2003). It has been observed that plural marking on first and second person pronominals is not additive but associative (see Corbett 2000: 83 and sec. 4.3.1; Corbett cites Lyons 1968:277 and Jespersen 1924: 192 in this regard).7 In many languages, there is a dedicated construction that yields an associative plural reading for proper names, kinship terms, and sometimes titles (Corbett 2000, Moravcsik 2003, Daniel and Moravcsik 2013). Paradoxically, as noted in (2c), pronouns in most languages do not take specific associative plural marking, even though they tend toward an associative reading in the plural.8

To summarize, number marking on pronouns and nominals tends to differ morphologically and semantically. Where it is the same, it tends to exhibit other unusual properties as well. This suggests that there is a deeper difference at play. We now present data from two languages, Persian and Niuean, to illustrate the other points in (2); then we return to a general discussion in section 4. Section 5 concludes.

2 What Persian Tells Us

The standard variety of Persian spoken in Iran uses number on pronouns for social deixis (see Levinson 1983:sec. 2.2.5) and thus patterns with many standard European and Asian languages in exhibiting what is known as the T/V distinction (Brown and Gilman 1960, Wardhaugh 1992:258–264, Heine and Song 2011). The T/V distinction refers to the use of a second person plural pronoun, or a third person singular or plural pronoun, as the polite second person singular form. Accordingly, we will focus on the use of plural pronouns as polite or honorific singulars in Persian (see Keshavarz 1988, Nanbakhsh 2011).9

Persian is a null subject language with rich agreement and only one set of pronominal forms, which do not inflect for case and exhibit a six-way distinction for person and number, as shown in table 1.10Table 1 also includes the demonstratives, which contrast with the pronouns in forming their plurals by adding the nominal plural marker -. In all three persons, the plural pronouns can be used to mark asymmetries in interaction either by raising the other (in the second and third person) or by lowering oneself (in the first person). In the case of the third person plural form, ishān, its use as an honorific singular is so entrenched that it no longer functions as a true plural.11 In its place, the distal plural demonstrative unā serves as a third person plural pronoun.12 In the second person, the plural pronoun remains ambiguous between a true plural and an honorific singular. The ambiguity is resolved in the informal variety by the use of shomāhā, the second person plural with the nominal plural marker attached.

Table 1

Persian pronouns and demonstratives (informal pronunciations in parentheses)

1st2nd3rdDemproximateDemdistal
SG man to in ‘this’ ān (un) ‘that’ 
PL mā shomā ishān in (inā) ‘these’ ān (unā) ‘those’ 
1st2nd3rdDemproximateDemdistal
SG man to in ‘this’ ān (un) ‘that’ 
PL mā shomā ishān in (inā) ‘these’ ān (unā) ‘those’ 

Honorific forms for first person are rare. Politeness dictates self-humbling rather than self-raising; as a result, the alternatives to pronouns in the first person are terms such as bande ‘[your] slave’, while alternatives for second person pronouns are other-raising, such as sarkār ‘chief ’.13 Nevertheless, some uses of ‘we’ as a singular, outside of the “royal we” used by the former Shah of Iran, have been reported; consequently, in the informal variety of Persian the form māhā is attested, as in the following example:14

(3)

  • kāsh mā-hā ham in-juri bud-im bā ham

  • if.only 1.PL-PL too this-way were-1PL with each.other

  • ‘I wish we were this way with each other.’

The distribution and use of pronominals incorporating the possibility of double plural marking is presented in table 2.

Table 2

Persian pronouns and demonstratives in their informal uses

1st2nd3rd
SG man to un ‘he/she/it/that’, in ‘he/she/it/this’ 
 humble shomāhonorific ishānhonorific 
PL mā, mā shomā unā ‘they/those’, inā ‘they/these’ 
1st2nd3rd
SG man to un ‘he/she/it/that’, in ‘he/she/it/this’ 
 humble shomāhonorific ishānhonorific 
PL mā, mā shomā unā ‘they/those’, inā ‘they/these’ 

The Persian data surveyed above highlight several significant differences between pronominal and nominal number. First, Persian illustrates the point in (2d) that plural pronominal number can be used for social deixis. Number in nominals is not used in this way. Second, the innovative use of the nominal plural marker on plural pronouns shows the way in which ambiguities created through the honorific system can be resolved. Third, the use of the nominal plural marker- on plural pronouns shows that nominal and (bundled) pronominal number in Persian cannot originate in the same place in the nominal spine.15

3 What Niuean Tells Us

Niuean is a language with a bundled person-number stem and an additional pronominal nonsingular marker. Pronominal number thus differs from nominal number in having different forms (2b) and being obligatorily indicated twice (2e). Number in pronominals also marks different contrasts in that it includes dual (2f ) and is in a different place than number in nominals (2b), as shown below.

In nominals, plurality is generally marked with a prenominal morpheme tau, as in (4b). The absence of this marker means that the nominal is singular.16

(4)

  • e akau

    ABS.C tree

    ‘tree’

  • e tau akau

    ABS.CPL tree

    ‘trees’

Number in pronouns is as shown in table 3. Singular or plural is indicated in the bundled root, and in addition, there is a plural or dual number morpheme on nonsingular pronouns.17 Thus, plural pronominals have two indications of number, in the bundle and in the form of a pronoun-final morpheme.18 Interestingly, the latter has the same form as the numeral ‘two’ (ua) or ‘three’ (tolu). Duality is expressed only in the final morpheme in the pronoun, whereas it is not expressed at all in regular grammatical nominal number.

Table 3

Niuean pronouns (Seiter 1980, Sperlich 1997)

1st EXCLUSIVE1st INCLUSIVE2nd3rd ANIMATE3rd INANIMATE
SG au — koe ia 
graphic
 
DU maua taua mua laua 
graphic
 
PL mautolu tautolu mutolu lautolu 
graphic
 
1st EXCLUSIVE1st INCLUSIVE2nd3rd ANIMATE3rd INANIMATE
SG au — koe ia 
graphic
 
DU maua taua mua laua 
graphic
 
PL mautolu tautolu mutolu lautolu 
graphic
 

Niuean exhibits an interesting additional difference between pronominal and nominal number. Pronominal number is consistent with a proper article, whereas nominal number is not (even with a name) (2g). We note first that Niuean has a distinct set of case-articles for proper vs. common, running across the entire case system as shown in table 4. Pronouns, like names, always take a case-article from the proper series, as shown in (5); thus, the language treats these as a natural class.

Table 4

Niuean case markers (Seiter 1980, Sperlich 1997)

ABSOLUTIVEERGATIVELOCATIVEGOALGENITIVEPREDICATIVE
PROPER ki ha ko 
COMMON he he ke he he ko e 
ABSOLUTIVEERGATIVELOCATIVEGOALGENITIVEPREDICATIVE
PROPER ki ha ko 
COMMON he he ke he he ko e 

(5)

  • Absolutive proper

    a Malo ‘Malo’

    a koe ‘you’

  • Absolutive common

    e tama ‘child’

  • Predicative proper

    ko Malo ‘Malo’

    ko koe ‘you’

  • Predicative common

    ko e tama ‘child’

Importantly, a plural pronoun is compatible with proper case-articles, but when a name is pluralized, it takes regular nominal number, and then it is inflected as common. Thus, nominal number triggers common marking, whereas pronominal number does not (Matushansky 2008, Ghomeshi and Massam 2009, Inokuma 2011, Camacho 2017, Forbes 2019).

(6)

  • Ko lautolu. (*Ko e lautolu.)

    PRED 3PL

    ‘(It’s) them.’

  • Ko e tau Pitolo. (*Ko tau Pitolo.)

    PREDCPL Beatle

    ‘(It’s) the Beatles.’

  • Loga e tau Mele he makete ni nai.

    be.many ABS.CPL Mary in market earlier

    ‘There were many Marys in the market earlier.’ (i.e., people named Mary or who look like Mary)

This constitutes a further difference between number in nominals and number in pronouns, in that nominal number is restricted to common noun phrases, whereas pronominal number can appear in proper noun phrases.19

In Niuean as in Persian, then, it seems that pronominal and nominal number are different. In addition, the data suggest that there is no number at all in a proper nominal, and that such nominals are interpreted as singular by default, rather than because of a number node with a singular value (see footnote 19). If number is required (to indicate plurality) in such a nominal, the nominal becomes common, and it then takes a common determiner.

4 Hypotheses

Persian and Niuean together illustrate five of the points in (2), demonstrating that number in pronominals is different from nominal number, a point that has not been fully explained theoretically. We propose that the differences arise because grammatical nominal number (in comparison with lower instantiations of number in nominals) is part of the nominal spine and plays a role within the referentiality system such as individuation (Borer 2005, Wiltschko 2014). In pronominals, reference is achieved instead through person (as head of φ), with number always being subordinate in some way to person. Our main claims are outlined in (7).

(7)

  • Grammatical number in common noun phrases is part of the nominal spine (1a), similarly to TP within CP, allowing for individuation, hence for referentiality.20

  • Nominals can also express low forms of number (lexical, modificational, aspectual, etc.).

  • Pronouns do not include a number position in their spine (1b). Number in pronouns never plays a role in individuation; rather, person does.

  • Pronominal number is always bundled with π (or it is attached to another position within the pronoun) and it is always subordinate to π, which is spinal.

  • Proper nominals do not have number but are inherently singular. If number is indicated, names appear with grammatical, spinal number, which is definitive of a common noun.

Our proposals allow the differences in (2) to be explained, in that they clearly differentiate the nature and role of number in common nominals and pronouns. Pronominal number is not a head that forms part of the phrase-defining syntactic spine; hence, it is readily morphophonologically differentiated from nominal number (2b,e,f ). Given that pronominal number is featurally bundled rather than forming a crucial spinal head that individuates, its grammatical role is less central, and it can be more freely related to other conceptual domains, such as formality and associativity (2c,d).21 Since pronominal number can already be associative, we do not find associative markers on pronouns. If grammatical number defines a common noun, we can understand why names with number are marked as common, rather than as proper, whereas pronominal number is fully compatible with the feature proper (2g). As for (2a), we propose that number is marked first on independently individuated nominals (i.e., those specified for person), before it takes on an individuating function itself (Acquaviva 2017). Of course, as noted, there can be other instantiations of number in nominals, which are more idiosyncratic (e.g., lexical, modificational, or aspectual number), and this kind of number can be imported into the pronominal system, for reinforcement or disambiguation, as seen above with Persian hā. We also leave open the possibility that some languages lack grammatical number altogether.

5 Conclusion

In this squib, we have argued that there are differences between number in pronouns and number in nominal phrases that require a theoretical explanation. We illustrated the differences through Persian and Niuean, and we proposed a key structural difference between nominals and pronouns: namely, in nominals grammatical number is part of the structural spine, whereas in pronominals it is dependent on the feature person. We also teased apart common and proper nominals with the claim that only the former include grammatical number. This proposal can explain several differences between number in nominals and number in pronouns, and it opens lines for further exploration. For example, other features such as case and gender should be further studied across the phrase types. Also, we note that even though nominal and pronominal number are different, they can both control agreement.22 Larger questions arise as well, as our proposals have implications for issues within syntactic architecture, such as the difference between features and heads, the basic spinal differences between phrase types, and the primitive vs. derived nature of nominal classes such as pronouns, common nominals, and proper nominals. If key differences between phrase types (sentences, nominals, pronouns, proper nominals) arise from their spinal architecture, greater understanding of how spinal structure is formed and constrained will be needed.

Notes

1 On the view that number in common noun phrases (henceforth nominals) heads a projection between NP and DP, see for example Ritter 1991, 1992, 1995, Valois 1991, Longobardi 1994, Bernstein 2001, Borer 2005, and Harbour 2014. For work on other types of number, see for example Rijkhoff 2002, Tang 2004, Acquaviva 2006, 2008, Wiltschko 2008, 2014, Massam 2009, Ghaniabadi 2010, Paster 2010, Butler 2012, Mathieu 2013, 2014, Zhang 2013, Macdonald 2014, and Kramer 2016.

3 For instance, Moskal (2015) argues that pronouns lack √Root+nP structure in order to explain why they exhibit root suppletion both for number and for case, while nouns display root suppletion only for number (see also Bobaljik 2015 and Smith et al. 2015).

4 We refer to the relation between # and π as bundling, remaining neutral as to the exact structural nature of this bundling, which could potentially take the form of subsyntactic feature bundle formation, feature adjunction, or some other structural configuration.

5 We leave open the range of typological variation and refrain from making the strong claim that these properties are necessarily the case in all languages or for all pronoun types (e.g., one/ones in English). Rather, we are pointing out that they hold in a great many cases. In some languages, nominal number might not be part of the spine or the home of individuation, and there are many different pronoun types (see, e.g., Déchaine and Wiltschko 2002).

6 A reviewer questions whether this particular point could simply be a matter of stem allomorphy; however, we feel such an analysis would leave the other properties in (2) unexplained.

7Corbett (2000:83–84) notes that “ordinary plural” readings are possible for first and second person pronouns in addition to associative readings. For instance, both you directed to multiple addressees and the choral we are additive, but Corbett states that associative readings are favored. Relatedly, we note that in constructions that select for additive readings, singular pronouns may appear with nominal plural marking. For instance, staring into a funhouse mirror one could say There’s a hundred me’s (in that mirror) or I see a thousand you’s.

8 Different explanations have been offered for this paradox. See, for example, Moravcsik 2003:493 and Ackema and Neeleman 2014.

9 Agreement on verbs can also be used with honorific meaning in Persian, particularly when the subject is null. When a plural pronoun is used as an honorific for a single addressee, the verb may take plural or singular agreement, with concomitant differences in social meaning (see Nanbakhsh 2011). While this system is worth further exploration, we leave agreement aside here.

10 We distinguish formal from informal spoken Persian here, as honorifics can be used in both varieties. We do not consider formal written Persian, nor the third person singular pronoun vey that appears in this variety, as the gap between it and spoken Persian is like that between spoken modern English and written Biblical English (Stilo 2004:270).

11 The honorific form ishān can also be used as a polite second person singular as well as a polite third person singular form, though this is tangential to our main point here (see Helmbrecht 2015 on the nonprototypical uses of personal pronouns such as the use of third person for second person).

12 Historically, the personal pronouns were used for reference to humans only while the demonstratives were used for nonhumans. Perhaps as a legacy of this historical development, the use of the proximate demonstratives (in ‘this’, inā ‘these’) to refer to human beings can sound rude or disrespectful. This effect is less evident with un ‘that’ and unā ‘those’.

13 See Lazard 1992 for more examples of self-humbling and other-raising terms, specific to certain registers such as administrative and ceremonial contexts.

14 We are grateful to Saeed Ghaniabadi for this example, retrieved from a Persian blog that is no longer online. Despite such examples, there seem to be greater pragmatic constraints on the use of the term māhā than on the use of shomāhā, as pointed out by Arsalan Kahnemuyipour ( pers. comm.).

15 The nominal plural marker - is not an instantiation of grammatical number in the English sense and has many atypical properties. Persian has general number, meaning that it is possible to have a plural interpretation without overt number marking in some contexts; - cannot appear with numerals unless the whole nominal phrase is definite, and - has pragmatic uses that extend beyond number. These facts and others have received diverse analyses (see, e.g., Ghomeshi 2003, Gebhardt 2008, 2009, Ghaniabadi 2010, Hamedani 2011). Our point, however, is that whatever else - as a number marker does, it also serves to create plural first and second person pronouns out of forms that are no longer unambiguously plural. It does so in a language that also has an associative plural marker ina that can never be used with pronouns (Ghomeshi 2018). From this we conclude that pronominal number, the nominal plural marker -, and the associative marker ina are syntactically distinct.

16 There are also other lexically idiosyncratic instantiations of number in Niuean nominals, including a modificational dual marker meaning ‘pair’ (Massam 2009); none are similar to number in pronominals, and we discuss here only grammatical number. (In)definiteness is not marked in Niuean. In the examples, ABS = absolutive, C = common, PL = plural.

17 We assume that dual stems include u, which deletes when ua is added. Hence, nonsingular roots are mau, tau, mu, lau. Alternatively, we could assume different stems for duals and plurals. Either approach is consistent with the points we are making here. We leave aside the suppletive genitive singular pronouns.

18Macdonald (2014) considers tolu and ua to instantiate the N (or root) node in the pronoun in Tongan. Alternatively, they could be seen as modifiers of the N root, or as modifiers of the pronoun as a whole. In Tongan, forms without tolu and ua are used as clitics.

19 In fact, the same is true in English: a proper name that is pluralized (and nongeneric) appears with the common determiner (the Smiths, the Marys that I know), but a plural pronoun does not (us). The same holds for overtly marked singular proper names: the one/only Mary in the class. Thus, we are assuming that the lack of overt number marking in proper names is due to the lack of a Number node in proper names, rather than to the presence of an unmarked singular. This allows for the broad statement that the feature proper is incompatible with number. With respect to possible typological variation, see footnote 5.

20 We refer specifically to grammatical number here. We leave open the possibility that some languages lack grammatical number altogether and license individuation in some other way—for example, by means of classifiers.

21 We assume that the mechanisms by which number takes on these functions in pronominals differ from one another. Associativity arises when plurality is marked on items that are individuated by other means (e.g., via D in proper names or π in pronouns). That is, the plural of an already individuated referent yields a group reading. Formality involves the loss of number as a semantic feature and its use as an exclusively formal feature indicating honorification (see, e.g., Despić 2017:289). We cannot explore these mechanisms here, but we hypothesize that the subordinated role of number in pronouns allows for it to take on other functions in a way that is not possible for spinal number in nominals.

22 Interestingly, there are dialects of English in which all plural nominal phrases except first and second person plural pronouns can optionally exhibit singular concord. That is, agreement in number is obligatory with pronouns but not with other plural DPs (see Adger and Smith 2010 for Buckie English, Henry 1995 for Belfast English, and Tortora and Den Dikken 2010 for Appalachian English).

Acknowledgments

This squib was first presented at the Workshop on Contrast in Syntax in honor of Elizabeth Cowper at the University of Toronto in April 2015 and then at the Gender, Class, and Determination conference in Ottawa in September 2015. We thank the audiences at both events, as well as the reviewers and editors who provided us with invaluable feedback. Grateful thanks also go to Malotele Kumitau Polata and Lynsey Talagi for generously sharing their expertise in Vagahau Niue (Niuean).

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