Countable, Uncountable and Collective Nouns in the Early Eighteenth Century English -- an Overview. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The inflectional pattern of nouns in Early and Late Modern English is almost identical with today's. One interesting exception is the treatment of abstract and mass nouns which in Present-Day English have no plural form and are considered indivisible. In Early Modern English they were regularly used in the plural (Schlauch 1959: 95) and in the course of Late Modern English they seem to have been systematically reclassified (Denison 1998: 96). The paper provides a synchronic analysis of selected countable, uncountable and collective nouns in the early eighteenth century English. The study is based on a corpus comprising five language registers: newspaper articles, letters, plays, novels and military documents. It outlines the overall tendencies in the treatment of certain nouns as countable, uncountable and collective in the corpus, as well as points out the discrepancies in their usage in different language registers. The study forms a part of my research into the development of countable and uncountable noun s in New English.

1.1 The corpus

The corpus consists of texts which both resemble and complement one another in terms of their range of vocabulary. The military documents differ from the rest in the choice of lexis, which makes them difficult to compare with the other texts, however, they also contribute to the completeness of the language picture, by indicating possible register-based differences.

The corpus materials are:

-- Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe,

-- Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700) by William Congreve,

-- The Spectator (1711-1712, vol. I and II),

-- The Guardian (1713, vol. I and II,

-- battle accounts (1690-1712),

-- letters published in The Guardian (vol. I and II),

-- letters published in The Spectator (vol. I-IV).

2. Classification of nouns -- the criteria

2.1 Countable versus uncountable nouns

The category of countable nouns comprises all the nouns which show plural marking (both regular, such as book-books, and irregular child-children) as well as a group of unmarked plurals (sheep, deer) which nevertheless behave syntactically like the former. Uncountable nouns semantically refer to an undifferenciated mass, they have no number marking and always take singular verbs. Singular countable nouns require a determiner to form a grammatical NP, whereas uncountable nouns do not (Denison 1998: 96), e.g.:

countable: *Book is cheap.

uncountable: Bread is cheap.

Countable unmarked plurals behave similarly in this respect, e.g.:

countable: A sheep is grazing in the field.

uncountable: *A furniture is expensive.

The use of articles with nouns seems to be an applicable criterion in the analysis of their countability in the eighteenth century, as the usage did not differ remarkably from that of Present-Day English. One difference is, according to Rissanen (1999: 191), that abstract nouns were used without an article more often than today, particularly when the marking of (in)definiteness or reference was of little importance. Rissanen quotes an example from the Helsinki Corpus:

'Nay sweete Hodge say truth, and do not me begile.'

([HC] Gammer Gurton V.ii)

Uncountable and countable nouns also differ in the choice of indicators of quantity, much and many. Much is used with the singular of mass nouns (much sugar), whereas many is used with the plural of countable nouns (many dogs). This modem distributional pattern was already well established in the eighteenth century (Marckwardt 1970: 52). Strang (1974: 139) maintains that the eighteenth century is a period when a great deal of started to be used exclusively with mass nouns. Other indicators of quantity used with uncountable nouns are the amount of and little, in the cases where countable nouns take the number of, several, few. …

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