Grammatical Number in Welsh: Diachrony and Typology

by Silva Nurmio (University of Helsinki)

From the Introduction, pages 1-3.

Nominal morphology and morphosyntax have been relatively neglected topics in Welsh, with diachronic studies dealing mostly with syntax and phonology, and with some work on verbal morphology. Searchable text corpora have been created relatively recently, both for Middle and Modern Welsh, which have made this study possible and allowed me to quantify and test earlier assumptions and theories. This book is the first monograph-length treatment of grammatical number in Welsh and it is aimed at Celticists as well as linguists interested in number more generally. It explores questions such as ‘does Middle Welsh have number values other than singular and plural?’, ‘does Middle Welsh have a dual?’, ‘does Welsh have “collective” nouns?’, ‘why are there so many different plural endings in Welsh?’, ‘why do adjectives sometimes, but not always, agree with a plural noun?’, and ‘why do we use the singular with numerals in Welsh?’ The following linguistic concepts are used to shed new light on the development of Welsh: animacy and the animacy hierarchy; markedness; minor numbers; the loss of the dual as a grammatical number; the interface between derivation and inflection; and language contact (with Latin and English at different periods). These concepts are oriented with regard to current cross-linguistic research on number as discussed especially in Corbett (2000). I attempt to place number in Welsh in a cross-linguistic perspective and provide data that can be used by linguists working on Welsh as well as those with no previous knowledge of the language. Welsh stands to contribute to many discussions in Corbett (2000) such as research on minor numbers (Middle Welsh can be said to have a minor dual for nouns denoting parts of the body) and non-compulsory agreement (adjectives can, but do not have to, agree in number with the noun they modify).

The starting point to the discussion is, in most cases, Middle Welsh for which we have a good amount of textual evidence, and nowadays also searchable text corpora which allow for quantitative work. Old Welsh is relatively poorly documented and we lack evidence for many number phenomena, which means that the Middle Welsh evidence is often also our earliest evidence. Each chapter explores the changes leading up to Modern Welsh, and Chapter 5 on mass nouns includes new data on Modern Welsh elicited through fieldwork. A comprehensive sister study of grammatical number phenomena in Modern Welsh, using corpora and quantitative and experimental data, remains an important desideratum.

This book has three major themes: (i) the grammatical number categories of Welsh; (ii) number agreement and (iii) genre and register and their importance to linguistic studies on older language stages. The first theme is represented by Chapters 3 (‘duals’), 4 (‘collectives’) and 5 (mass nouns). Chapters 3 and 4 look at two categories, ‘duals’ and ‘collectives’, which, as the quotation marks suggest, are problematic and have previously lacked an operative definition in Welsh, giving rise to much terminological confusion in the literature. I argue that these are indeed number categories (a minor number category in the case of the dual), alongside the more familiar singular/plural type. Chapter 5 re-evaluates Welsh mass nouns and demonstrates that there is curious overlap between collective and mass nouns which has previously gone largely unnoticed. I set out a number of tests to determine the category of any given noun, including morphological and syntactic criteria, which show that mass nouns can in fact be divided further into two groups, dubbed mass1 and mass2. Mass1 nouns behave as one might expect mass nouns to behave on the basis of languages like English, by being uncountable and controlling singular agreement. Mass2 nouns, on the other hand, are fascinating in being hybrid controllers, namely they can control both singular and plural agreement and anaphora. There are, to my knowledge, so far no other attested examples of mass nouns as hybrid controllers in any other languages.

Mass nouns, then, lead us to the second major theme of this book, namely number agreement. I explore this theme further in Chapters 6 and 7 in which I look at the number agreement of adjectives (attributive and predicative, as well as adjectives used as nouns) and the agreement of nouns in numeral phrases. These case studies reveal systematic patterns in what has often been described as free variation or occasional irregularity in Welsh. Adjectives in attributive and predicative positions have non-compulsory agreement, but many lexemes have clear preferences for agreement or non-agreement. In numeral phrases, the regular pattern is for nouns to remain in the singular with ‘two’ and above, but in Middle Welsh some nouns have other forms (either identical with the plural, or different from both the singular and the plural). While this has been described as occasional irregularity, this use of ‘special forms’ is in fact only possible for a small group of nouns, called ‘numeratives’. Chapter 7 on numeral phrases summarizes some findings of Nurmio & Willis (2016) while expanding the discussion to include a comparison with number agreement in Breton and Cornish, as well as Irish.

The third theme of the book is the importance of understanding the difference between literary genres and registers when studying older language stages for which only textual evidence remains. Medieval Welsh texts are all written to varying degrees in a formal literary register, and the study of linguistic features often involves uncertainty between regarding something as really reflecting the spoken language of the time or being a peculiarity of literary stylistics. Rodway’s (esp. 2013) work on the medieval Welsh verbal system has advanced our knowledge of the linguistic differences between prose and poetry. I show in Chapter 6 that number agreement on attributive adjectives is another domain where genre/register differences appear, in this case between a sample of prose texts translated from Latin and native prose, while some differences between prose and poetry also occur. Plural agreement is on the whole more common in the texts translated from medieval Latin than in native Welsh compositions, suggesting that this is a register feature of this group of translations, and may differ greatly from contemporary spoken usage. A difference between literary genres was also highlighted in my case study of the plural suffix -awr (Nurmio 2014) which was shown to be almost completely restricted to poetry, and more specifically vocabulary related to the semantic fields of warfare and weapons. There are likely to be other features that vary between genres. Analysing these will be important for understanding the range of linguistic variation in Welsh; for instance, are differences between given texts due to different dates of composition (diachronic variation), genre/register variation, or perhaps dialectal variation? The seemingly philological task of studying variation between literary genres is, then, of much significance to more general linguistic questions.

The approach of these case studies is historical and typological. Depending on the data available, I compare Old, Middle, Early Modern and Modern Welsh at different points (see the next section for the approximate dates for these periods). As discussed in 1.2, the Old Welsh period is not well attested, and we often lack any examples of a given linguistic phenomenon. However, Chapter 4 (on ‘collective’ nouns) and 6 (on adjectival number agreement) draw considerably from the Old Welsh corpus, as it includes interesting data on pluralized singulative nouns and plural adjectives respectively. Chapter 7 on numeral phrases charts a major change between Middle and Modern Welsh agreement patterns with numerals. Early Modern Welsh features in the discussion of singulatives in Chapter 4 where I show that many singulatives are first attested in this period. Chapter 5 draws considerably on Modern Welsh; both the medieval and modern corpora lack sufficient examples of agreement with mass nouns, which led me to conduct fieldwork with speakers of Modern Welsh, which I tentatively compare with older stages.


Corbett, Greville G., 2000. Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nurmio, Silva, 2014. ‘ Middle Welsh ‐awr: The case of the lost plural suffix’, Studia Celtica 48, 139– 170.

Nurmio, Silva & David Willis, 2016. ‘ The rise and fall of a minor category: The case of the Welsh numerative’, Journal of Historical Linguistics 6 (2), 297– 339.

Rodway, Simon, 2013. Dating Medieval Welsh literature: Evidence from the verbal system. Aberystwyth: CMCS Publications.

Silva Nurmio’s book Grammatical Number in Welsh: Diachrony and Typology is freely accessible to members of the Philological Society via the Wiley Online Library and their membership number. Members are asked to contact one of the Society’s secretaries with any questions in this regard. Full members are entitled to a print copy of this volume, which may be requested using this online form.

Parallel evolution of relative clauses in Indo-European

by Nikolas Gisborne & Robert Truswell (University of Edinburgh)

The Indo-European indefinite/interrogative pronouns *k wi-/k wo- are the source of relative pronouns in several daughter languages, including varieties of Romance, Slavic, and Germanic among others. These pronouns did not head relative clauses in PIE, and so their presence in the relative clauses of the daughter languages is a result of processes of historical evolution which have recurred in different subfamilies. However, this recurring parallel process is by and large confined to Indo-European. Comrie (1998) claims instead that the interrogative relative pronoun strategy is a European areal phenomenon, because it is also found in neighbouring languages such as Hungarian and Georgian. However, there is ample evidence that endogenous innovation gives rise to interrogative relativizers in English and several other Indo-European languages. This suggests that such endogenous processes may be wholly or partly responsible for the emergence of interrogative relativizers across Indo-European. However, these processes are not the same across daughter languages: there appear to be several meandering paths from the same start point to similar endpoints.

In this talk, we establish a framework for describing both the parallel diachronic pathways and the dimensions of variation around those pathways. The broad outline of the parallel developments can be established by combining a typological perspective on Indo-European indefinite/interrogatives with results from Haspelmath (1997) on the relationship between interrogative and indefinite pronouns, from Belyaev & Haug (2014) on the typology of correlatives and conditionals, and from Haudry (1973) on the relationship between correlatives and headed relatives. At the same time, the behaviour of individual lexical items within this typological space is less predictable, accounting for the variation around this broad pathway.

This paper was read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford, Somerville College, on Saturday, 16 June, 4.15pm.

An audio recording and screencast of the paper can be found below and on the Society’s YouTube channel. A PDF version of the presentations is also available.

Understanding the loss of inflection

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

The role of inflection is one of the most conspicuous ways that languages differ from each other. While English speakers only have to learn four or five forms of the verb, speakers of Georgian have to deal with paradigms containing hundreds of forms. In return for their efforts, they gain the ability to express complex propositions compactly: the single word vuc’er requires five words in its English translation ‘I am writing to him’.

Surrey Morphology Group
Loss of Inflection: a research project by the Surrey Morphology Group

The extent of inflectional morphology also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language – during its recorded history English has dramatically reduced the inflection it inherited from Proto-Germanic, leaving only a few relics, like the distinction between pronominal I/me, she/her, he/him.

The inflectional poverty of modern English may come as a relief to the many people who learn it as a second language, but its meagre remaining stock of inflection is zealously guarded by purists. Barack Obama was ‘roundly criticized’ for using a subject pronoun in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” – a use described by Hock in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991: 629) as ‘the ultimate horror’ (admittedly in scare quotes), and which even led one blogger to comment “believe it or not, this was a contributing factor to my voting decision”. Continue reading “Understanding the loss of inflection”