English Quasi-Numeral Classifiers

A Corpus-Based Cognitive-Typological Study

by Xu Zhang (Author)
©2017 Monographs 380 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 226


This book is an interdisciplinary study of English binominal quantitative constructions based on English-Chinese comparison. Taking three perspectives, i.e. a functional-typological perspective, a cognitive approach, and a corpus-based method, it aims to unveil the hidden categorisation process behind the usage of English binominal quantitative constructions and to reveal the language universal in cognising the concepts of ‘Quantity’ and ‘Quality’. It argues against treating Chinese and English as members of two opposing typological camps concerning quantification modes (‘classifier languages’ versus ‘non-classifier languages’) and advocates to view the two languages as lying within a more extended and inclusive system, viz. a system of quantification and categorisation modes, or a Quantity-Quality continuum.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Preliminaries
  • 1.2 Perspectives
  • 1.3 Research questions
  • 1.4 Outline of the book
  • 2. Classification of Classifiers and English QNCs: A Typological Perspective
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Classifier Systems
  • 2.2.1 Definition
  • 2.2.2 Types of classifier systems
  • 2.2.3 Semantic parameters
  • 2.3 Numeral classifiers (NCs) and Chinese NCs
  • 2.3.1 Syntactic properties
  • 2.3.2 Historical development
  • 2.3.3 Semantic properties
  • 2.3.4 Two functions
  • 2.3.5 A functional dichotomy of NCs
  • 2.3.6 A functional dichotomy of Chinese NCs
  • 2.3.7 Semantic parameters of Chinese Sortal NCs
  • 2.4 English Quasi-NCs (QNCs)
  • 2.4.1 Observations
  • 2.4.2 A structural examination
  • 2.4.3 A functional examination
  • 2.4.4 A concept of Quasi-NCs (QNCs)
  • 2.5 Identifying English QNC Constructions (QNC-Cs) in morphosyntactic form
  • 2.5.1 Variations in binominal forms: Quantitative Constructions (QCs)
  • 2.5.2 Variations in QCs: binominal Partitive Constructions (PCs)
  • 2.5.3 Variations in binominal PCs: PCs and pseudo-partitive constructions (PPCs)
  • 2.5.4 The English QNC-C morphosyntactic form
  • 2.6 Features of QNC-Cs and QNCs
  • 2.6.1 Semantic head of QNC-Cs
  • 2.6.2 QNCs as a fuzzy category
  • 2.6.3 Potential nouns as QNCs
  • 2.7 Benefits of putting forward the notion of English QNCs
  • 2.8 Conclusion to the chapter
  • 3. Categorisation by NCs and QNCs: A Cognitive Perspective
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 NCs in cognitive grammar
  • 3.2.1 NCs as instances
  • 3.2.2 NCs as schemas
  • 3.2.3 Instances or schemas?
  • 3.3 NCs in category theories
  • 3.3.1 Revisiting category theories in cognitive linguistics
  • 3.3.2 NC studies in cognitive linguistics
  • 3.3.3 A modified NC/QNC Category model
  • 3.4 Dimensionality and Dimensionality-NC/QNCs (D-NC/QNCs)
  • 3.4.1 Why D-NC/QNCs
  • 3.4.2 Dimensionality construed by D-NC/QNCs
  • 3.5 Working towards a modified D-NC/QNC Category model
  • 3.5.1 The Schematic Common Feature
  • 3.5.2 Category members
  • 3.5.3 Degrees of membership
  • 3.5.4 Motivations of categorisation
  • 3.5.5 Frequency of members
  • 3.5.6 Category inclusion and fuzzy boundaries
  • 3.6 Conclusion to the chapter
  • 4. A Corpus-Based Methodology
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 A corpus-based method
  • 4.2.1 The British National Corpus (BNC)
  • 4.2.2 BNCweb and the analytical techniques
  • 4.3 Introspective intuition supplemented by dictionary definitions
  • 4.4 Determining D-QNCs for case studies
  • 4.4.1 Gathering QNCs
  • 4.4.2 Classifying QNCs
  • 4.4.3 Distinguishing D-QNCs
  • 4.4.4 Selecting D-QNCs
  • 4.5 Obtaining data for case studies
  • 4.6 The analytical process
  • 4.7 Conclusion to the chapter
  • 5. 1-D QNC Categories: Case Studies of Thread, Strip, and Column
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 The THREAD Category
  • 5.2.1 Outside the THREAD Category
  • 5.2.2 Members
  • 5.2.3 Motivations of categorisation
  • 5.2.4 Frequency
  • 5.2.5 Beyond and around the THREAD Category
  • 5.2.6 More about the THREAD Category
  • 5.3 The STRIP Category
  • 5.3.1 Members
  • 5.3.2 Motivations of categorisation
  • 5.3.3 Frequency
  • 5.3.4 Beyond and around the STRIP Category
  • 5.3.5 More about the STRIP Category
  • 5.4 The COLUMN Category
  • 5.4.1 Outside the COLUMN Category
  • 5.4.2 Members
  • 5.4.3 Motivations of categorisation
  • 5.4.4 Frequency
  • 5.4.5 Beyond and around the COLUMN Category
  • 5.4.6 More about the COLUMN Category
  • 5.5 Conclusion to the chapter
  • 6. 2-D QNC Categories: Case Studies of Sheet and Slice
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 The SHEET Category
  • 6.2.1 Members
  • 6.2.2 Motivations of categorisation
  • 6.2.3 Frequency
  • 6.2.4 Beyond and around the SHEET Category
  • 6.2.5 More about the SHEET Category
  • 6.3 The SLICE Category
  • 6.3.1 Members
  • 6.3.2 Motivations of categorisation
  • 6.3.3 Frequency
  • 6.3.4 Beyond and around the SLICE Category
  • 6.3.5 More about the SLICE Category
  • 6.4 Conclusion to the chapter
  • 7. Conclusion
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 More about the D-QNC Categories from a cognitive perspective
  • 7.2.1 Compound Schematic Features defining the D-QNC Categories
  • 7.2.2 Extent of the D-QNC Categories
  • 7.2.3 Structure of the D-QNC Categories
  • 7.2.4 Motivations of the D-QNC categorisation
  • 7.3 Revisiting D-QNCs from a functional-typological perspective
  • 7.3.1 A measurisation device on a grammaticalisation continuum
  • 7.3.2 A measurisation device on mini-semantic maps
  • 7.4 Summary of findings
  • 7.4.1 Typological findings on NCs
  • 7.4.2 Cognitive findings on NC Categories
  • 7.5 Contributions of the present study
  • 7.5.1 Methodological contribution
  • 7.5.2 Theoretical contribution
  • 7.6 Suggestions for further research
  • 7.7 Concluding remarks
  • References
  • Appendix I. Traditional Taxonomies of Chinese NCs
  • Appendix II. Gathering English QNCs
  • Appendix III. Concordance Lines from the BNC
  • Index of Subjects
  • Series Index

← 10 | 11 →

List of Abbreviations

← 12 | 13 →

1.  Introduction

1.1  Preliminaries

Classifiers have been a particular focus of interest in functional typology and cognitive linguistics. Illustrations of a typical type of classifiers, numeral classifiers (NCs), can be found in Chinese.1 When co-occurring with numerals or demonstratives, Chinese nouns have to be preceded by classifiers, which generally indicate a physical feature. For instance, in (1), when being counted, ‘rope’, ‘snake’, ‘road’, and ‘news’ all follow the classifier tiáo, which indicates a ‘long’ shape. Similarly, ‘paper’. ‘skin’, ‘face’, and ‘bed’ all occur after the classifier zhāng, which designates ‘flatness’ in shape.

(1)a.  image187shéngzi (rope)b.  image187zhǐ (paper)
  2tiáo shé (snake)zhāngpí (skin)
  one[CL: long]3 lù (road)one[CL: flat]liǎn (face)
      xīnwén (news)    chuáng (bed)

In mainstream typological studies on classifiers (e.g. Aikhenvald, 2000; Allan, 1977; Craig, 1986), it is usually believed that the linguistic device of classifiers is exclusive to certain languages, while English, like most Indo-European languages, is considered to have no NCs. An ← 13 | 14 → obvious piece of evidence is that while Chinese obligatorily uses classifiers before nouns are counted, English can enumerate nouns directly, e.g. ‘one snake’ and ‘three faces’. Thus, typologists often divide world languages into two types: ‘classifier languages’ and ‘non-classifier languages’.

Classifiers carry special significance in cognitive linguistic studies, in that they bear critically on the issue of categorisation, whose essential importance has been pointed out by Lakoff (1987: 5–6):

There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action, and speech[…] An understanding of how we categorize is central to any understanding of how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human.

In the two Chinese examples presented in (1) above, classifiers tiáo and zhāng group different nouns into two separate classes,4 i.e. classes of long or flat things. The usage of classifiers seems to indicate how the noun referents are conceived and what specific properties the noun referents are understood to have, e.g. snakes are conceived as ‘long’, and paper ‘flat’. That is, ‘[i]n their completely overt arrangement of objects into classes, classifier systems may indeed expose how the process of categorization works’ in a rather ‘graphic’ way (Craig, 1986a: 2), and the usage of classifiers may provide ‘a unique insight into how people categorize the world through their language’ (Aikhenvald, 2000: 5). Thus, usually viewed as ‘a case of overt categorization in language’ (e.g. Aikhenvald, 2000: 1; Craig, 1986a: 2), classifiers research has mostly been taken up within the framework of categories. This is also one starting point of the present study.

It is against the background of these two observations that the present study is situated: cognitively, classifiers are a language device representing overt linguistic categorisation, and in mainstream typological studies, NCs are generally not considered to exist in languages like English. This book will re-examine the traditional typological division between the so-called ‘classifier’ and ‘non-classifier’ languages, and ← 14 | 15 → investigate the cognitive categories revealed by an English structure which is functionally equivalent to phrases of NCs proper.

1.2  Perspectives

This book is intended to present a functional-typological account of NCs and Enlish NC-like words and a cognitive study of categories reflected by the latter. The investigation involves three perspectives: it is oriented in a functional-typological background, takes a cognitive approach, and inspects data obtained by a corpus-based method.

First, this study is grounded in a ‘functional-typological’ perspective, an approach advocated by Croft (2003). Compared to the traditional typological stance that draws a rigid distinction between ‘classifier’ and ‘non-classifier’ languages from a structural point of view, the book will approach the issue of NCs from a more semantics-based perspective, on the principle that ‘linguistic structure should be explained primarily in terms of linguistic function’ (Croft, 2003: 2).

Different languages encode linguistic functions in different ways. The fact that the morphosyntactic construction of NC phrases in classifier languages is devoted to certain functions does not necessarily entail that the so-called ‘non-classifier languages’ possess no constructions performing the same functions, though maybe to a less dedicated degree.

Based on this theoretical foundation, this study will stretch the traditional concept of ‘NCs’ further beyond the scope of the acknowledged ‘classifier languages’, and the functional framework of NCs will be projected onto the ‘non-classifier language’ of English. This perspective will be further expounded in Chapter 2.

Second, the present study will examine NCs, in this ‘stretched’ sense, from a cognitive perspective. Based on the claim that classifiers are a linguistic device overtly representing categorisation, analysis will be conducted in the framework of cognitive category theories, e.g. prototype theory and schema theory. The category structure and cognitive ← 15 | 16 → mechanisms functioning in the process of categorisation are especially in focus. The cognitive model will be explicated in more detail in Chapter 3.

Third, data in this book are drawn from a comprehensive corpus, the British National Corpus, and the analysed examples are all attested real language uses. A detailed description of the corpus-based approach is provided in Chapter 4.

1.3  Research questions

The aim of the present book is to explore how far the categorisation device of NCs can be found, in some form, across languages and how this device encodes the function of categorisation. Correspondently, two over-arching research questions are addressed in this study, both broken down into more specific questions:

1) Is the categorisation device of NCs exclusive to ‘classifier languages’? (Chapter 2, revisited in Chapter 7)

1)-1.  What functions do NCs perform? (Section 2.3)

1)-2.  Are there any structures in the ‘non-classifier language’ of English which encode the same functions? (Section 2.4)

1)-3.  How can these English structures, i.e. English Quasi-Numeral Classifier (QNC) structures, be identified in morphosyntactic form? (Section 2.5)

1)-4.  What semantic and syntactic features do these English QNC structures have? (Section 2.6)

1)-5.  How are English QNCs compared to Chinese NCs proper in a functional-typological perspective? (Section 7.3)

2) What categories are realised by the usage of Dimensionality-based QNCs? (theoretically outlined in Chapter 3, and attested by case studies in Chapters 5 and 6.)

2)-1.  How do NCs realise the function of categorisation in general? (Sections 3.2, 3.3, and 3.5)

2)-2.  What are ‘Dimensionality-based’ NC/QNCs? (Section 3.4) ← 16 | 17 →

2)-3.  What categories do English Dimensionality-based QNCs (D-QNCs) reveal? (Chapters 5 and 6) Specifically,

What is included in these categories? (revisited in Section 7.2.2)

What cognitive mechanisms motivate the categorisation? (revisited in Section 7.2.4)

How frequently do different category members occur? Why?

What does the surrounding context tell us about the category and the D-QNC?

What gradient structure does the category manifest? (revisited in Section 7.2.3)

1.4  Outline of the book

In pursuit of the research questions raised above, this book is composed of two major parts: a theoretical exploration (Chapters 2 – 3), and an empirical study (Chapters 4 – 6). It is organised as follows:

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the research topic, presenting an outline of the research questions and an overview of the book.

Chapter 2 tackles research question 1) and unfolds a functional- typological, and especially a functional, perspective on NCs, in which a critical concept, English QNC, is proposed. This chapter serves as an important backdrop and lays a theoretical cornerstone for the later cognitive exploration.

Chapter 3 addresses research questions 2)-1 and 2)-2. It situates the NC/QNC study in a cognitive-grammatical context, proposes a modified cognitive model of QNC categories, and narrows the research scope down from QNCs in general to Dimensionality-based QNCs in particular. This chapter sets up the cognitive analytical framework for the empirical studies pursued in the latter half of the book. ← 17 | 18 →

Following the theoretical discussions in Chapters 2 and 3 comes the second half of the book: empirical research on categories realised by English Dimensionality-based QNCs.

Chapter 4 outlines the corpus-based cognitive methodology for the case studies. It presents the corpus source and analytical tools, selects five Dimensionality-based QNCs for analysis, and describes the cognitive analytical process. In line with the modified category model proposed in Chapter 3, a detailed outline of research topics is laid out for the later case studies. This is a transition chapter which paves the way for the two following empirical chapters.

Chapters 5 and 6 are two parallel chapters devoted to five case studies, addressing research question 2)-3. Three cases of one-dimensional QNCs and two cases of two-dimensional QNCs are investigated respectively. Each of the five cases follows the modified category model in Chapter 3 and attends to the specific topics presented in Chapter 4, where the QNC categories will be gradually unravelled.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
corpus-based categorisation English-Chinese comparison cognitive English binominal quantitative construction functional typology Numeral Classifiers
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 362 pp., 38 b/w ill., 2 coloured ill., 29 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Xu Zhang (Author)

Xu Zhang is currently a lecturer in the School of English Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University, China. She obtained her PhD degree in Linguistics from Lancaster University, UK. in 2009.


Title: English Quasi-Numeral Classifiers
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