Friday, July 13, 2007

Mass nouns and count nouns

I mentioned a while back here that the Wisconsin Englishes folks (link in the links and blog roll section to your right) had talked a little about a pattern where Wisconsin English treats some nouns as count noun but most English speakers treat them as mass nouns:
I'm going to wash my hairs.
Let's have some beers.
The first seems to be pretty limited these days and second is widespread beyond here, surely.
Surely related is that some things which are plural for most English speakers are singular here:
a scissor(s)
a nail clipper
These are really common around these parts. The whole set may reflect immigrant language influences, as the Wisco English crew is exploring in some current research. Last night, I heard a good one, having dinner with a group of Madisonians:
There's a roll of paper towel on the shelf.
The meaning was quite clear: A roll of paper towels. Following up, it wasn't a performance error or anything, but a normal-sounding form to those present. When I tried to get the group's reaction on things like a clipper and whether they say a scissor or a scissors, I got some surprises, like one speaker (Wisconsin born and bred) who reported a pair of scissors but then spontaneously used a nail clipper in talking about the issue.

17 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Some beers" sounds perfectly normal to me.

Hmmm. "Three coffees" only sounds right as part of an order (that's three coffees, two teas, and a milk), and "some coffees" (let's have some coffees) doesn't work at all. Milk is the same, and tea, juice, water - all the same. Wine, too - "three wines" could mean "a red, a white, and a merlot", but not "let's go out for some wines" or "I only drink two wines a day".

Whiskey works fine with numbers, as "he had 3 whiskeys and called it a night", as do named drinks (gin and tonics, rum and cokes, daiquiris, margaritas) but only beer works as "let's go out for some". Not even "rum" (let's go out for some rums"??)

That's kind of strange, isn't it?

alvin f. said...

To my ear, "beers" and "whiskeys" both sound unforced, I think, because I take each to be an agreed-upon volume. "A beer" is a unit of measurement equal to (most often) 12 ounces. I have no idea what "a whiskey" equals, though I've been told I should keep count anyway.

Anonymous said...

"a nail clipper" and "a scissor" works just fine for this eastern Pennsylvanian...

Anonymous said...

Well, this Eastern Pennsylvanian can say "a nail clipper" but never, ever "a scissor". Sounds very strange.

The Ridger, FCD said...

A nail clipper is okay, though nail clippers is more usual, but a scissor? Feels to me like that would be a broken pair. (Tennesseean, by the way - eastern)

Anonymous said...

definitely heard (and can still hear) my father saying "Hand me a scissor, please"

~ the original Eastern Pennsylvanian...

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, 'beers' is clearly familiar to tons of people (esp. North but Mid-Atlantic etc. too.)

A scissors is presumed by the Wisconsin English folks to be a Germanism (a pair of scissors = eine Schere) and such constructions are eerily parallel between eastern PA and the Upper Midwest in many cases.

Somebody I asked suggested that 'nail clipper' is sort of too small and the two blades aren't salient enough to really 'feel' like a plural to them.

Anonymous said...

beers, nail clipper, scissor

All good for this Wisconsinite. In fact, I find 'nail clippers' downright bizarre

Anonymous said...

~to the other eastern Pennsylvanian: NEPA or SEPA?

Mr. Verb said...

Wonderful ... could I ask a question of the 'scissor' speaker? When were you born? I'm interested in whether 'a scissors' is a kind of compromise form or something.

Anonymous said...

"a scissors" sounds very wrong to me...

~ the original (south) Eastern Pennsylvania (25 y.o... yet, one of the few of my generation to grow up in a semi-Penna Dutch speaking household)

Mr. Verb said...

Many thanks. 'A scissor' seems to be recessive here (found mostly among older speakers), while 'a scissors' is so normal that people often don't know it's not universal. (This is seat-of-the-pants stuff -- I'd love to have real surveys on this.

Anonymous said...

Just did a quick google search for "a scissor"... not much popped up... well, actually too many pages of "a scissor lift" or "a scissor kick" etc... but typing in "a scissor" and "Pennsylvania German" or "a scissor" and "Amish" gives several blogs by some Pennsylvanian quilters who fancy the Amish patterns and use "a scissor" in their writing.

Additionally (though his website is a bit on the bizarre side), this ex-Amish (and presumably PG speaker) uses "a scissor": http://www.amishabuse.com/ordnung.htm

Wonder what those Midwestern Amish are saying??

A search on those less- than- linguistic- but- still- sociolinguistically- interesting "Ferhoodled English" booklets also yielded nothing on "a scissor."

You're welcome... apologies for so many comments...

~ the original Eastern Pennsylvanian

Mr. Verb said...

First off, comments are most welcome ... they're almost always more engaging than the original posts. A common image on campus here is "cooking stone soup": You throw out an idea without any notion of how to develop it or carry it out, and other people pitch in. Pretty soon, you have grant funding. The comments seem a little like that.

I'd bet money that the Midwestern Amish pattern with Pennsylvania on this count.

This kind of lexical thing must be difficult to overcome. In Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian, 'door' is plural, and proficient L2 English speakers sometimes have trouble with that.

Anonymous said...

That "door" comment is fascinating! What's the logic behind that?

Mr. Verb said...

You mean how it's plural in Slavic? I'm no expert here by any stretch, but the usual story is that that's really old -- I think the Indo-European word was generally dual or plural in form, for cultural reasons: They used two-piece or double doors or whatever you call such creatures in English.

Wishydig said...

It sounds about right that the small size and less obvious paired-composition of clippers would help to 'singularize' the word.

I'd also guess that "a nail clipper" has the easy semantic singular extension. It's 'that thing that clips nails.' I've called the contraption by both the singular and plural. I have no idea which I use more often.

I don't think I'd ever say singular 'scissor.' And there isn't anything that "scisses" so it looks like a true purely syntactic variable.

My wife (a Minnesotan) says there might be some contexts in which she would use the singular (as when singling out a specific pair). I don't think it's a dialect feature. Just a rhetorical twist.