Count and mass nouns in Chinuk Wawa

There are two kinds of nouns, in every human language I know of. They can be distinguished as items (what linguists call “count nouns”) vs. substances (“mass nouns”).

mass counts

I believe red herrings are a popular food in Massachusetts (image credit: MassCounts) 

A classic Linguistics 101 test to see which of these categories a noun belongs to is whether you can pluralize that noun; in English, count nouns can be pluralized (like cat-s, pencil-s, pizza-s). Mass nouns can’t (like water-s, air-s), not normally, unless you’re purposely giving them a count-noun sense (several servings of water, or the idiom ‘putting on airs’).

Yeah, only the thing is, this doesn’t apply in Chinuk Wawa, which doesn’t have separate singular and plural forms of nouns. Some of the other “classic” tests for the mass/count distinction are similarly English-centric, and are of no help to us here. Let that be a lesson — if your supposed science (I’m looking at you, my fellow linguists) is overly reliant on the way one specimen (English) works, you might not know much about how other specimens behave. (There are 6 or 7,000 languages on Earth!) 

Well then, one trustworthy CW-centric test of mass- vs. count-noun status goes like this: 

  • Some nouns can have quantifiers modifying them:
    • qʰə́nchi(-háyú) ___ (as a question or as a statement) ‘how much/many; some amount of’, kʰánawi ‘all (of)’, etc.
    • íxt ___, mákwst ___, ɬún ___, táɬlam ___, etc. (‘1, 2, 3, 10’…)
  • Other nouns can have units of measure before them:
    • (BC) < sitkom pawnd flawr > ‘half a pound of flour’
    • (BC) < botil hwiski > ‘a bottle of whiskey’

This test works well with other languages; try it on those that you’re acquainted with. 

There exist other mass-vs.-count tests, but the above is enough to propel our discussion. 

Substances/mass nouns are stuff that lacks easily defined boundaries (and therefore, abstract nouns are usually mass nouns):

  • tsə́qw / chə́qw ‘water; liquid’
  • qúsax̣ ‘sky’
  • smúk ‘smoke’
  • íliʔi / ílihi ‘land, dirt, soil’ 

Items, that is count nouns, have discretely bounded physical entities: 

  • lapotʰáy ‘bottle’
  • kʰámuksh ‘dog’
  • t’wáx̣-x̣úmx̣um ‘computer’
  • kəním ‘canoe’

A neat twist:

In some cases, one and the same word in CW can be either a mass or a count noun, depending on what’s meant by it. This is true also of English and of many or most languages. But, each language has its own unique degree of propensity for such ambiguity. English likes to use separate words for mass vs. count meanings, so that it’s relatively uncommon and strange-feeling to speak of ‘many waters’ (which is sayable only if you mean something like ‘numerous brands of bottled water’). Chinuk Wawa is far more tolerant of mass/count flexibility than that.

For instance, we have síl, which is translated by the apparently countable ‘cloth; rag’ in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary (no usage examples are shown). But that same noun pretty obviously is a substance (mass) noun when it’s a modifier in compounds such as síl-háws (‘fabric-structure’) ‘tent’. Here síl is just telling you what substance the structure is composed of, and it’s irrelevant to think about which exact piece of fabric is involved. 

In fact, it’s probably safe to generalize that “modifier member in a compound” is an especially common place for mass nouns to occur. By corollary, count nouns may be the prototypical “head member” in CW compounds. Staying with this word síl, we can contrast síl-háws ‘tent’ with úpʰuch-síl ‘a diaper; a loincloth’.     In the second of these, síl is the word that’s being described, by úpʰuch ‘butt(ocks)’. This phrase as a whole refers to one specific cloth. 

We can notice another really interesting feature of Chinuk Wawa in this light. Referring back to an issue noted above, CW has the well-known trait that it makes no formal distinction between singular and plural uses of a noun. Thus for example mán can be, and is, used for one ‘man’ or multiple ‘men; people’.

But, it turns out, that trait is limited to count nouns.

Mass nouns can’t normally be used with a plural semantic interpretation! And this fact in turn shows us that some items that are count nouns in English are mass nouns in “Jargon”, and vice versa. Moreover, some words that we’d expect (by the observations I made above) to be in one or the other category in CW do not fulfil that prediction.

All of this often has to do with the individual etymology and cultural history of a word. A couple of examples of such surprises that we can learn something from: 

  • sáx̣ali-smúk (‘high-smoke’) ‘clouds’ in southern dialect is a mass noun,
    vs. the more recent borrowing < klawd > in the northern dialect, which is a count noun!
  • tənəs-íliʔi (‘little-land’) ‘island’ is a count noun in my experience,
    vs. sháwásh-íliʔi (‘Indian-land’) ‘Indian reservation’ which I’ve found to be a mass noun (I guess when you think about it, there was only one rez that mattered, back in the days when this expression originated in the rapidly forming Grand Ronde community)

Today we’ve seen yet again how Chinuk Wawa grammar is often covert — that is, if you think of grammar as only the list of prefixes, suffixes, enclitics, etc. that get added on to roots & stems. There’s little or nothing audible or visible to flag a noun as “count” or “mass” in this language. Instead, you have to have a mind trained to notice how a word is behaving in concert with all the stuff around it. 

If you haven’t yet cultivated that awareness, you’re likely to be using “Jargon” words in an English-language way. (I put it like this because most CW learners’ first language is English in 2021.) And that kind of part-learning is why many previous observers have boldly, and wrongly, claimed that CW has no grammar of its own…

I hope this little discussion of mass nouns and count nouns has given you some tools to get more insight into Chinuk Wawa.

What do you think?