Grammatical Features Inventory


Anna Kibort

What is 'associativity'

Associativity is a grammatical category which expresses the meaning: 'X and the group (of one or more members) associated with X', where X is a nominal, typically of human reference. An example is the Hungarian János-ékmeaning 'John and associates / John and his group / John and them', or the Japanese Tanaka-tachi 'Tanaka and associates / Tanaka and his group / Tanaka and them'.

Associative meaning can be expressed through a variety of morphological and syntactic means (see §2 below), and the phenomenon has been given different labels in different languages. The most common terms are 'associative plural', 'group plural' and the less frequent 'cohort plural', but also 'elliptical dual' (used when applied to duals; Delbrück 1893:137), 'approximative plural' (Jespersen 1924:192), 'plural a potiori' (meaning 'from the stronger'; used for example in some studies of Sanskrit, or in Semitic linguistics), and 'reprezentativnaja množestvennost' ('representative plurality'; used by Russian Orientalists). Furthermore, a related construction, labelled 'similative plural' has been reported for some languages. An example is the Telugu (Dravidian, India) puligili 'tigers and such' (Daniel & Moravcsik 2005:150, from Colin Masica, personal communication), which denotes a class of objects sharing similar features rather than a group of closely related associates. However, it is tempting to argue that the associative refering to people also denotes a group of referents sharing some salient feature such as being related to one another, belonging to the same team, or being members of any other definable grouping.

Daniel & Moravcsik (2005:150) identify two semantic properties of associative constructions: referential heterogeneity and reference to a group. Referential heterogeneity distinguishes associatives from (additive) plurals. Plurals are additive in the sense that they refer to a set where every member is an instance of the entity and thus the set is referentially homogeneous (every referent of the plural form is also a referent of the stem). The associative designates a set that is referentially heterogenous: it refers to a group comprising one focal referent (the named member of the group) and one or more distinct referents (the associates). Thus, while the plural boys refers to a set where every member is a 'boy', the associative Tanaka-tachi does not refer to a set where every member is a person named 'Tanaka', but to a group of people only one of whom has this name. Therefore, the associative can be seen as a 'semantically nonhomogeneous plural'. The second semantic property of the associative is reference to a group, as opposed to a set without any internal cohesion. This property makes the associative somewhat similar to the collective, except that the collective is referentially homogenous.

The numerical size of the group referred to by the associative may be two or more. Therefore, the denotation of the associative is semantically plural, meaning 'more than one'. It may be specified as dual (as, for example, in Central Alaskan Yupik, which makes a distinction between the associative dual and associative plural), and potentially also as trial, paucal, etc. (although currently we only have examples of associative plurals and duals).

After an investigation of the associative in 200 languages, Daniel & Moravcsik (2005:150) conclude that in almost all cases the focal referent and the associated referents belong to the same cognitive category, which is most commonly the class of humans. The most commonly understood associates are family, with the second most common interpretation being 'friends or familiar associates', and another possibility being 'an occasional group that the focal referent is a member of'. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. There are many languages that allow the associative to have all three interpretations - e.g. Tatar (Turkic, Russia), although some languages restrict their associatives to the kin reading - e.g. Bagvalal (Daghestanian, eastern Caucasus). Associative meaning is much more rarely available for non-human animates, as in the Tatar (Turkic, Russia) jeldezler 'Star (a cow's name) and (my) other cow' (Michael Daniel, field data), there is only sporadic evidence of non-singular forms of inanimate nouns used to refer to sets of objects closely related to each other, and this last pattern is never productive. Examples include: theSanskrit dual form of the word for 'mortar' used to refer to 'mortar and pestle' (Delbrück 1893:137), and the Nganasan (Uralic, Russia) plural form of the word for 'bow' used to refer to 'bow and arrows' (Valentin Goussev, personal communication) (all examples from Daniel & Moravcsik 2005:150).

Expressions of 'associativity'

Associativity can be expressed lexically, by simple conjoining of the appropriate nominals, e.g. John and his familyJohn and his teamchairs and suchpens, pencils, etc. - but this does not make it a grammatical category.

The following table, taken from Daniel & Moravcsik (2005:150-151), lists the various types of morphological and syntactic expression of associativity - that is, those instances where associativity is a grammatical category in the language. The first column identifies the type of marking, the second column gives some more information about the marking and characterises the structure of the whole expression, and the third column gives an example of a language where this type of expression is found. The plus sign indicates co-occurrence without regard to linear order: 

dedicated affix noun + dedicated affix Brahui (Dravidian, Pakistan)
dedicated article noun + element which occupies article position and has no other functions Tagalog (Malayo-Polynesian, Philippines)
dedicated clitic noun + clitic with no other functions Adyghe (North Caucasian, Russia)
basic plural noun + affix, clitic, or a free word, which also serves as additive plural marker on most nouns Turkish
secondary plural marker noun + affix, clitic, or a free word, which also serves as additive plural marker on a few nouns Evenki (Tungus, Altaic, China)
possessive affix + plural affix headless plural possessive Bulgarian
plural pronoun noun + plural personal pronoun Mandarin
conjunction noun + conjunction without the second coordinand Basque
plural verb form singular noun phrase (verbal agreement controller) + plural target verb form Plains Cree (Algonquian, Canada)

Special associative marking independent of, and co-existing with number marking is rare, but it has been found in Central Alaskan Yupik (Corbett & Mithun 1996). Special forms combining associativity and number, as the ones found in Hungarian, are common, and also common is indicating associativity by normal number forms. An interesting example of the use of a normal plural possessive prefix to show that the possessors are the named individual and associates is found in Paumarí (Arauan, Amazonas, Brazil; Corbett 2000:110, after Chapman & Derbyshire 1991:257).

The last type of marking listed in the table has also been reported in Maltese (Semitic, Malta; Moravcsik 1994, Fabri 1993:276-278), the Talitsk dialect of Russian (Corbett 2000:191-192, data from Bogdanov 1968), and Haruai(Trans-New Guinea, Papua New Guinea; Corbett 2000:192, data from Bernard Comrie, personal communication). When agreement only is used to express associative meaning (e.g. plural agreement), but no marking indicating associativity is found in the nominal phrase (i.e. the nominal phrase is singular), conflicting agreements can occur. In the Talitsk dialect of Russian, we may find singular (syntactic) agreement on the attributive modifier of the noun, and plural (semantic - dictated by associativity) agreement in the predicate. However, an anaphoric personal pronoun referring back to the (referent of the) singular noun will be plural. This pattern of agreement is in accordance with the agreement hierarchy (attributive < predicate < relative pronoun < personal pronoun; Corbett 1979), since syntactic agreement is found in attributive position and semantic agreement is found in the predicate and personal pronoun (Corbett 2000:192).

Although associativity as a grammatical category is distinct from number (see §6 for some more discussion of this distinction), it is nevertheless frequently realised together with number, and therefore the markers in such cases can be regarded as portmanteau markers fusing both functions. Daniel & Moravcsik (2005:151) argue that, where the associative marker is also a plural marker, this is an instance of polysemy due to the relatedness of the additive and the associative meanings:

'[t]he division between those nouns which, when combined with this marker, are interpreted additively, and those nouns which, when combined with the same marker, are interpreted associatively, is roughly the same in different languages: (...) it is primarily human proper names and kin terms whose basic plural forms are interpreted associatively. As was suggested in Daniel (2000), this is so because proper names are linked to a strong pragmatic presumption of their referent's uniqueness, at least within a given speech act. The basic, additive plural interpretation is therefore problematic for such nouns. The meaning of the marker is then adjusted to the semantics of the stem, changing the homogeneous plural reference to the heterogeneous one and yelding associative plural meaning. The same argument is applicable to at least some kin terms.'

 Rather than treating the markers as polysemous, Corbett (2000:83-87) explains the tendency, with certain classes of nouns, for the plural marker to be interpreted as an associative marker, by reference to the animacy hierarchy (Corbett 2000:56, following Smith-Stark 1974): 

Speaker > Addressee > Kin > Rational > Human > Animate > Inanimate
(1st-person   (2nd-person                    
pronouns)   pronouns)                    

He argues that the likelihood of the different readings of singular and plural (and other number values) varies according to the position on the hierarchy of the head nominal. Normal number readings are most natural in the middle of the hierarchy. However, towards the bottom of the hierarchy, it is increasingly natural for nominals to be recategorised (from mass to count and from count to mass - see the entry on 'Number' in this Inventory for more details). On the other hand, nominals at the top of the hierarchy are more likely to have associative readings. Thus, even in languages with no special form for the associative, the associative interpretation of a number form is nevertheless likely for some class of nominals at the top of the animacy hierarchy.

Being at the top of the hierarchy, plural personal pronouns are expected to have an associative meaning - and this is indeed nearly universally the case. Although we can be used as an ordinary plural (when more than one speaker says simultaneously we pray; we solemnly swear, and so on), we is generally used as an associative, meaning 'speaker and one or more other people'. Similarly, you (plural) can be used with reference to simultanous multiple addressees, or to one addressee and his or her associates. In different languages, associative reading for non-singular nouns is possible down to varying points on the animacy hierarchy. In some languages, associative reading may be available only for a very small set of nouns, as in Spanish, where the few examples include: mis padres 'my father and mother' (lit. 'my fathers'), and los reyes 'the king and the queen' (lit. 'the kings') (example from Daniel & Moravcsik 2005:150). Although proper nouns are not distinguished on the hierarchy, they can have ordinary plurals (as in the English there are three Karens in the class); they can also be used in the plural either for members of the class typified by the name-bearer (three Jeremiahs for three people producing pessimistic prophecies), or for the products of the name-bearer (three Monets) (Corbett 2000:84; see also Quirk et al. 1985:1564; Honti 1997:11). In English, plural proper nouns with associative meaning are limited to surnames, as in: the Smiths 'Mr Smith and his wife', or possibly 'Mr Smith and family'. From their cross-linguistic perspective, Daniel & Moravcsik (2005:150) observe that, among human nouns, associative meanings are much more typical of proper names than of common nouns; and among human common nouns, of kin terms (especially of terms for 'father' and 'mother') more than of other human common nouns. Furthermore, all their evidence is consistent with the generalisation that if a language forms associatives from any lower category of nominals, it also forms associatives from any of the higher categories.

The status of 'associativity' as a feature

Despite being a grammaticalised category in some languages, associativity does not seem to have any repercussions for syntax, and therefore there are no grounds for considering it a morphosyntactic feature. Even in a language likeCentral Alaskan Yupik, where associativity is marked independently of, and concurrently with number, it is only number that affects agreement.

There are languages where the morphological number of the associative noun phrase does not correspond to the number marking on the verb. The clearest examples are languages which mark the associative in the way listed in the last row of the table in §2: Maltese, the Talitsk dialect of RussianHaruai, and Plains Cree have been reported to use a singular noun phrase with plural verb form to express the associative. We may ask whether the mismatch of number between the subject and verb is not an indication of the syntactic requirement imposed by the associative. However, when we consider other mismatches of agreement, the associative no longer requires a special explanation. It can be treated as an instance of semantic agreement, alongside familiar phenomena such as semantic agreement with coordinated nominal phrases, or the option of semantic (i.e. plural) agreement for morphologically singular nouns of the 'committee'-type. Whether a nominal has a (non-plural) associative marking or not, when the associative meaning is intended, it is semantically plural and this is the agreement that it triggers in the verb. Therefore, it is not necessary to treat plural agreement with non-plural associative nominals as resulting from a morphosyntactic feature 'associative'.

The evidence found so far suggests, therefore, that associativity is a morphosemantic, but not a morphosyntactic feature.

The values of 'associativity'

There seems to be only one value expressed through the associative form, in opposition to the base form which does not express associativity.

Oddly behaving associativity markers

An interesting condition on the formation of the associative has been observed. The focal referent of the associative is often interpreted as pragmatically dominant, so in many languages associatives meant to designate a family are formed from the man's (rather than the woman's) name (Daniel & Moravcsik 2005:150).

Problem cases

The associative is not an additional value of number. Associatives have frequently been analysed as an additional value of number. However, if they are treated as number, the patterning of the associative forms appears to provide counter-examples to the typology of number built on the animacy hierarchy, since either the associative plural or the ordinary plural proves to be exceptional. Corbett (2000:101-111) provides careful argumentation for the separation of the categories of number and associativity, with the key evidence coming from languages such as Central Alaskan Yupik, where the associative morphology is independent of and co-occurring with number morphology. The fact that in many languages plural forms of certain classes of nominals have associative readings can also be explained with reference to the animacy hierarchy, and this approach was outlined in §2.

Key literature
  • Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP. (§4.3 Associative - pp. 101-111; also pp. 83-88, 191-192)
  • Daniel, Michael & Edith Moravcsik. 2005. The associative plural. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 150-153.
  • Bogdanov, V.N. 1968. Osobyj slučaj dialektnogo soglasovanija skazuemogo s podležaščim po smyslu i kategorija predstavitel'nosti. Naučnye doklady vysšej školy: filologičeskie nauki 4:68-75.
  • Chapman, Shirley & Desmond C. Derbyshire. 1991. Paumarí. In: Derbyshire, Desmond C. & Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds) Handbook of Amazonian Languages III. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 161-352.
  • Corbett, Greville G. 1979. The agreement hierarchy. Journal of Linguistics 15:203-224.
  • Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP. (§4.3 Associative - pp. 101-111; also pp. 83-88, 191-192)
  • Corbett, Greville G. & Marianne Mithun. 1996. Associative forms in a typology of number systems: evidence from Yup'ik. Journal of Linguistics 32.1-17.
  • Daniel, Mixail. 2000. Tipologija associativnoj množestvennosti. [The typology of associative plurals]. PhD thesis, Russian State University for Humanities, Moscow.
  • Daniel, Michael & Edith Moravcsik. 2005. The associative plural. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 150-153.
  • Delbrück, Berthold. 1893. Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen. Vol. 3: Syntax der indogermanischen Sprachen 1. Strassburg: Trübner.
  • Fabri, Ray. 1993. Kongruenz und die Grammatik des Maltesischen. (Linguistische Arbeiten 292). Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Honti, László. 1997. Numerusprobleme (Ein Erkundungszug durch den Dschungel der uralischen Numeri). Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen (Zeitschrift für finnisch-ugrische Sprach- und Volkskunde) 54:1-126.
  • Jespersen, Otto. 1924. The Philosophy of Grammar. London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Moravcsik, Edith. 1994. Group plural - associative plural or cohort plural. E-mail document, LINGUIST List 5.681, 11 June 1994.
  • Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech & J. Svartvik (eds) 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.
  • Smith-Stark, T. Cedric. 1974. The plurality split. Chicago Linguistic Society 10:657-671.


How to cite:
Kibort, Anna. 2008. Grammatical Features Inventory: Associativity. University of Surrey.