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Unmarked plurality and specificity in Korean and Japanese plural nouns

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 1:37 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Linguistics and Language Teaching | Comments Disabled

Kiri Lee, Associate Professor

Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

Lehigh University

Pennsylvania, U.S.A


Min-Young Park, Associate Professor

Department of Japanese Interpretation and Translation

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Korea


In classifier languages such as Korean and Japanese, countable nouns do not have to be obligatorily marked for plurality even though these languages have plural suffixes, namely, –tul and –tachi in Korean and Japanese respectively. There are some similarities and differences between these plural suffixes; the most notable difference is that, while Japanese –tachi can only be attached to animate countable nouns, Korean –tul is attached to all countable nouns, although the –tul forms are found predominantly more in human than in animal, and to a lesser degree in inanimate nouns (Kang 2007).

The following examples exhibit that a singular countable noun is ambiguous for singular and plural readings:

1. Alupaithu-lo ai-lul tolpoko-issta 2. Arubaito-de kodomo-o mite-iru.

Side-job-for a child/children-Acc watch-be “I am taking care of/watching a child/children as my side job.”

In 1 and 2, ai and kodomo can be construed as either singular or plural without the plural suffixes. This is exemplified more specifically in the following sentences (3 and 4) with numeral classifiers after each noun.

3. Alupaithu-lo ai-lul sey-myeng tolpoko-issta. 4. Arubaito-de kodomo-o san-nin mite-iru.

Side-job-for children-Acc three-classifier watch-be “I am taking care of/watching three children as my side job.”

It is well documented that when these nouns occur with the plural markers, they do not only mark the plurality but denote an added meaning (Kurafuji 2003, Nakanishi & Tomioka 2004, Kim 2011).

5. Alupaithu-lo ai-tul-ul tolpoko-issta. 6. Arubaito-de kodomo-tachi-o mite-iru.

Side-job-for children-Acc watch-be “I am taking care of/watching (the) children as my side job.”

In 5 and 6, the countable nouns ai-tul and kodomo-tachi can denote a particular group of children, such as “my friend’s children”, “the children in our neighborhood” and so on. Whether these nouns with the plural suffixes are definite or specific has been muchdebated (e.g., Kurafuji 2003, Kim 2011). Following Arsenijevic’s (2008) definition of definiteness and specificity, i.e., “a noun phrase is definite if its referent is present in the shared discourse while a noun phrase is specific if its referent is present in the speaker’s discourse”, we observe three kinds of readings: 1) ai-tul and kodomo-tachi are mere plural (a unmarked reading); 2) they are a specific group of children whom the speaker knows (a marked reading for specificity, but not definiteness); 3) they are a specific group of children whom the speaker and the hearer know, thus definite (a marked reading for specificity and definiteness). In this paper, we claim that a marked reading for plural nouns denotes ‘Specificity’ in both Korean and Japanese. As we assume that all definite nouns are [+specific], our conclusion agrees with the claims in the literature that Korean and Japanese plural nouns give a definite reading optionally in some cases and obligatorily in others (Kurafuji 2003, Lee 2000).

However, in our observation, the Korean –tul behaves more like a genuine plural suffix compared to the Japanese –tachi.

7. Kakey-lul tat-ulye-ko ha-nunte, sonnim-i tule-wassta. 8. Mise-o shime-yoo-to shi-tara, kyaku-ga haitte-kita.

Store-Acc close-about-do-when customer-Nom came-in “When I was about to close the store, a customer/customers came in.”

9. Kakey-lul tat-ulye-ko ha-nunte, sonnim-tul-I tule-wassta. 10. Mise-o shime-yoo-to shi-tara, kyaku-tachi-ga haittekita.

Store-Acc close-about do-when customers-Nom came-in “When I was about to close the store, (the) customers came in”

In 7 and 8, sonnim and kyaku can be either singular or plural, but in 9 and 10, it is very awkward to interpret kyaku-tachi in Japanese as unmarked plural while the Korean sonnim-tul can have an unmarked plural reading. Thus, when the pragmatic context allows the marked reading of specificity, Japanese has a strong tendency to interpret a plural noun as specific, while Korean can allow both readings equally (Baek 2002, Zheng 2011).

We also note that the use of a plural suffix follows the general economy principle of language. When plurality is explicitly expressed by means of a predicate or an adverb (‘there are many’) or by the use of a numeral with or without a classifier, it is much more appropriate and natural not to mark a noun with -tul or -tachi. Also, with the verb such as ‘gather’ which anticipates collectiveness as its subject, the plural meaning is assigned to the subject noun even though it is in a singular form. Significantly, when a noun appears with a demonstrative pronoun entailing specificity, -tul is obligatory in Korean: ku haksaeng vs. ku haksaeng-tul ‘that student’ vs. ‘that students’. On the other hand, Japanese has two separate demonstratives for singular and plural, i.e., kore/korera, sore/sorera, are/arera,

and, thus, plurality can be marked either as kono gakusee-tachi, korera no gakusee, or korerano-gakusee-tachi. Moreover, our claim that the marked reading of plurality necessarily implies [+specific] is supported by the pronoun system of the two languages; as pronouns are inherently specific, the singular and the plural forms should be distinct, which are borne out by the data.


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URL to article: http://www.najaks.org/?p=972