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Cross-linguistic Variation in Semantics

Course 2013-2014

Admission requirements

The course is open to students who followed an introduction to formal semantics AND to students with a solid background in descriptive linguistics and/or typology.


This course studies cross linguistic variation in the domain of semantics, focusing on the count/mass distinction.

The difference between countable objects (e.g. pens) and non countable stuff (e.g. water) has consequences for the way nouns such as pen and water combine with for instance numerals (cf. two pens vs. two cups (or liters etc.) of water). When looking at ways in which languages encode countability, a large amount of cross-linguistic variation can be observed.

For instance, English count nouns such as pen directly combine with a numeral if the noun is marked with plural -s (two pens). In Mandarin, the noun bǐ‘pen’ can only be used with a numeral when a so-called ‘numeral classifier’ (cl) is added indicating the unit of counting. English two pens is rendered as Mandarin liǎng zhī bǐ‘two clbranch pen’, a structure that literally means something like ‘two branch pen’, with zhī ‘clbranch’ expressing the fact that long thin objects are being counted. In this respect the Mandarin word for pen resembles English mass nouns such as water: when using a numeral with a mass noun, an expression such as cup has to be added that indicates the unit of counting, as in two cups of water. Other languages use neither plural marking nor a classifier, and simply say two pen (Tagalog, Yudja). Or they allow for different structures: two pen, two unit pen or two pens (Indonesian, Armenian). This course investigates linguistic variation in the domain of the count/mass distinction on the one hand, and looks at semantic approaches that deal with this variation on the other.

Students can choose to focus on formal semantic aspects or on language description and typology.

Course objectives

This course aims at developing the following abilities:

  • the ability to critically apply analytical and descriptive linguistic research methods to cross-linguistic data;
  • the ability to apply formal models for the research and/or the modellnig of linguistic phenomena;
  • the ability to critically evaluate scientific arguments and methods within the sub-domain of semantics and cross-linguistic variation;
  • the ability to report a critical discussion of the literature and thorough scientific argumentation and analysis in a written paper and in an oral presentation.


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

  • time spent on attending seminars: 26 hours
  • time for studying the compulsory literature: 154 hours
  • time to prepare for the exam and/or write a paper (including reading/research): 100hours

Assessment Method

  • Attendance and presentations 30%
  • Take-home exam 20%
  • Paper 50%


This course is supported by Blackboard.

Reading list

Preliminary reading list:

  • Chierchia, Gennaro, 1998. Plurality of mass nouns and the notion of “semantic parameter”, in: Rothstein, S. (Ed.), Events and Grammar. Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 53-103.
  • Chierchia, Gennaro, 2010. Mass nouns, vagueness and semantic variation. Synthese 174, 99-149.
  • Dalrymple, Mary, Mofu, Suriel, 2012. Plural semantics, reduplication, and numeral modification in Indonesian. Journal of Semantics 29, 229-260.
  • Doetjes, Jenny (2012). Count/mass distinctions across languages. Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. C. Maienborn, K. von Heusinger and P. Portner. Berlin, De Gruyter. III: 2559-2580.
  • Grimm, Scott, 2012. Individuation and inverse number marking in Dagaare, in: Massam, D. (Ed.), Count and mass across languages. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 75-98.
  • Haspelmath, Martin, Dryer, Matthew, Gil, David, Comrie, Bernard, 2005. World Atlas of Language Structures. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Krifka, Manfred, 1995. Common nouns: a contrastive analysis of Chinese and English, in: Carlson, G., Pelletier, F. (Eds.), The generic book. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 398-412.
  • Li, Peggy, Dunham, Yarrow, Carey, Susan, 2009. Of substance: the nature of language effects on entity construal. Cognitive Psychology 58, 487-524.
  • Lima, Suzi, 2010. About the count-mass distinction in Yudja: a description, in: Rogers, B., Szakay, A. (Eds.), Papers for WSCLA 15: The Fifteenth Workshop on Structure and Constituency in Languages of the Americas. The University of British Columbia Working Papers in Linguistics, Ottawa, pp. 157-164.
  • Massam, Diane (ed.) (2012). Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford Studies in Theoretical Linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Students should register through uSis. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail:

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MA Linguistics departmental office, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;