Posted: Jul 10, 2016 3:25 pm
by don't get me started
In the philosophy thread jamest raised the issue of numbers and counting. thought it might make a good topic from the standpoint of linguistics, as there are plenty of unusual things in the world’s languages when it comes to numbers and counting.
I’ll start off with English as it is the language I know best, but I will also refer to some other languages.

When it comes to quantifying aspects of reality, English makes a basic distinction between countable and uncountable items.
Countable items are perceived as stand alone, separate items and can be ascribed a number value. One book, two dogs, three apples, four chairs etc.
The uncountable category contains are a rather loose collection of items that seem to fall into the this category mainly because they are not in the countable category, rather than because they have any internal consistency with other items in the category.
Firstly, there are items that consist of a single substance:
Gases, (smoke, air, oxygen, steam), liquids (water, blood, beer), pastes and gels, (mud, cream, toothpaste) and non-shape solids. (Cheese, chocolate, wood, metal etc.)
Then there are aggregates. These are substances that consist of a large number of separate distinct items, but the large number of individual items appearing together renders counting impractical. (Rice, sand, gravel, sugar, hair.)
Then there are certain abstract items that are not perceived to be countable. (Information, love, furniture, money).

Other languages may differ on the countable/ uncountable categories. In Latin, information comes in the countable category; it has both singular and plural forms (datum/data). In English, information is uncountable; one does not talk of ‘two informations’.
This brings us to the way in which English makes a sharp distinction within the countable category: Singular or plural. In English one cannot avoid stating either singular or plural when referring to countable nouns. One can say: “I bought a/the/this/that/his/ her book” OR “I bought the/ these/those/his/ her/ some/ a lot of books.
What one cannot say is ‘I bought book’. This is in line with what is known as the Boas-Jacobson principle which holds that languages differ not so much in what they can say (any thought that can occur to any human can be expressed in any language) but rather in what they MUST say. English regards making the distinction between singular and plural as a necessity when talking about countable nouns. Japanese does not have this aspect.

In Japanese it is entirely possible to say ‘I bought book’ without indicating whether one bought one or more than one books.

私Watashi = I
は Wa =topic marker
本 Hon = book
をWo = object marker
買ったKatta= bought

It is possible to add the number, if so desired (本二冊 Hon ni satsu= two volumes of books) but it is not necessary to mention the number or amount, as it is in English.
In Japanese the countable/uncountable distinction is absent as is the singular/ plural distinction, for the most part.

So, the ways in which English categorizes numbers and amounts, with an often blurry line between countable and uncountable ("There was a hair in the sink= one hair. I got my hair cut= lots of them.) and a fairly strict line between singular and plural is a peculiarity of that language. For native speakers of English the system seems natural, logical, even inevitable, but when compared with the number/counting systems of other languages, it becomes clear that it is arbitrary, has contradictory elements and can be thoroughly confusing to non-natives learning the language. ("I got my hairs cut last Saturday and barber used a big scissors.)