No funny thing happened on the way to the plural

JNL-drinkSomething odd occurred to me this morning concerning the concept of grammatical number.

Languages have singular forms and plural forms: dog vs. dogs. Some languages have collective words from which the singular (here called “singulative”) can be derived: Arabic baqar “cattle” vs. baqarah “cow.” Some languages even have dual and trial forms for specifically two or three things. And, some languages have a “paucal” form to distinguish a few of something from many.

But what about zero things?

What I noticed was that, at least in the languages I know, there is no grammatical number for zero. Instead, to express the concept of zero number, the number that we expected is negated. For example:

Is there a dog?

There is no dog.

… or …

Are there dogs?

There are no dogs.

This strikes me as odd because it’s a very subjective way of looking at the world, which privileges our (incorrect!) assumptions over observed reality. It’s as if languages are avoiding the uncomfortable issue of non-existence by using negative quantities subtracted from the expected positive quantities. Think of the grammatical negation as a mathematical negative, like so:

1 dog?

-1 dog.

… or …

x dogs?

-x dogs.

And, as far as I (and the grammatical references I’ve checked) know, no languages exist that have zero number. Isn’t this strange? I think so.

Imagine a language with zero number. Let’s use the made-up word va to indicate the interrogative mood, i.e., a question. Let’s say the word for “to be” is per- with the endings -ek, -en, and -ela for zero, singular, and plural respectively. And let’s say the word for “dog” is z- with the endings -ogo, -ono, and -olowa for zero, singular, and plural respectively.

Fun! So here is what a language with zero grammatical number could look like. (The English translations for zero number will, of course, have to include both singular and plural since there is no zero number in English.)

Va perek zogo? “Are there no dogs/Is there no dog?” (No dog expected.)

Perek zogo. “There are no dogs/There is no dog.”

… or …

Va peren zono?  “Is there a dog?” (One dog expected.)

Perek zogo.  “There is no dog.”

… or …

Va perela zolowa?  “Are there dogs?” (Many dogs expected.)

Perek zogo.  “There are no dogs.”

Notice how the response, rather than negating the incorrect expectation, simply states the fact. And, since that fact is the same every time, the response doesn’t change based on the mistaken expectations implied by the questions.

Now, let’s remove the assumed number altogether. Let’s say vede is the interrogative word for “how many” with -et and -odo as the verb and noun endings for uncertain number.

Vede peret zodo?  “How many dogs?” (No expected number.)

Perek zogo.  “There are zero dogs/There is no dog.”

The response always reflects the same objective reality, rather than repeating the subjective error to negate it.


AFTER-NOTE: To make such a language even more scientific, we could use numerals as suffixes: -ek/-ogo for zero, -en/-ono for one, -ep/-obo for two, -ebis/-ebiso for twenty, -ebisen/-ebisono for twenty-one, etc.

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