Quantification in Nen

  • Nicholas Evans
Part of the Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy book series (SLAP, volume 97)


This article examines quantification in Nen, a Papuan language of the Yam family (aka Morehead-Maro family) from Southern New Guinea. Nen counts some 400 speakers, most living in the single village of Bimadbn. Typologically, Nen is an SOV language with ergative case-marking, agreement on the verb for up to two arguments, and a split in verbal agreement patterns between active and stative predicates.

With regard to quantification, the most interesting features of Nen are its complex system for composing number by integrating partial or disjoint number specifications (e.g. ‘non-dual, i.e. singular or more than two’) from a number of morphological sites. For many values this results in non-monotonic processes of composition. Composition from a number of sites is also a feature of temporal semantics, e.g. bidirectional time adverbs (yesterday/tomorrow) whose exact reference is selected by the verbal semantics. Numerals exhibit an unusual senary system, including monomorphemic roots for powers of six up to 65; grammatical number is also unusual, with several lines of evidence suggesting that the dual is the unmarked number with regard to verbal morphology. The language has rich systems of indefinite and negative pronouns and distributive numerals, and an entrenched count vs mass distinction, interestingly linked to a lack of general quantificational interrogatives for mass expressions. The existence of double agreement on the verb eliminates many classic scope ambiguities with regard to universal and existential quantifiers. Finally, an unusual conflation of ‘all’ and ‘most’ in the main relevant D-quantifier is problematic for standard accounts of quantity implicature.



I would like to thank Ed Keenan and Denis Paperno for their kind invitation to submit a chapter to this volume, Denis Paperno and an anonymous referee for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter, Jeff Siegel, Christian Döhler and Wayan Arka for discussions of how quantification works in other languages of southern New Guinea, Susan Ford for assistance with preparing the manuscript, and the following organisations for financial support of my work on Nen: the Australian Research Council (Grants: Languages of Southern New Guinea and The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity), the Volkswagen Foundation (DoBES project ‘Nen and Tonda’), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Anneliese Maier Forschungspreis), the Australian National University (Professorial Setup Grant) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL). Most importantly, I think the entire population of Bimadbn village for their hospitality and friendship, and especially Jimmy Nébni, Michael Binzawa, Yosang Amto and Goe Dibod for their finely attuned discussions of how quantification works in Nen.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), College of Asia and the PacificAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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