Greek Mass & Count Nouns

In 2 Samuel 17:28, we find an interesting list of nouns that cannot translate directly into English:

28 ἤνεγκαν δέκα κοίτας καὶ ἀμφιτάπους καὶ λέβητας δέκα καὶ σκεύη κεράμου καὶ πυροὺς καὶ κριθὰς καὶ ἄλευρον καὶ ἄλφιτον καὶ κύαμον καὶ φακὸν 29 καὶ μέλι καὶ βούτυρον καὶ πρόβατα καὶ σαφφωθ βοῶν καὶ προσήνεγκαν τῷ Δαυιδ καὶ τῷ λαῷ τῷ μετ̓ αὐτοῦ φαγεῖν, ὅτι εἶπαν Ὁ λαὸς πεινῶν καὶ ἐκλελυμένος καὶ διψῶν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.

The issue relates to how English and Greek treat certain types of nouns. In English, we have a variety of noun classes. Two classes that we’re interested in today are Mass and Count nouns. Count nouns are nouns that you can modify with a numeral:

1 cat, 2 cats, 5 ducks, 37 coins, 39 Greek grammars, 32 Greek lexicons, and so forth.

Mass nouns cannot be modified in this way:

10 rices, 5 waters, 1 barley.

You get the idea. And you can probably tell as an English speaker that all of these nouns have similar semantic properties, right? We “count” mass nouns by putting them in a genitive phrase modifying a count noun:

5 gallons of water, 22 lbs of rice (or 10 kg, if you will), 3 jars of honey, etc.

And we shouldn’t expect this system to be universal across languages. It isn’t. The Greek sentence above has a number of nouns whose English “equivalents” don’t quite match.

πυροὺς – wheat

κριθὰς – barley

ἄλευρον – meal

ἄλφιτον – grain

κύαμον – bean

φακὸν – lentil

μέλι – honey

βούτυρον – butter

Now some observations:

There seem to be two main differences between Greek mass nouns as English ones. The first of these is pluralization: πυρός (wheat) is a mass noun in Greek, but it can also be pluralized. Something that “wheat” cannot do in English. The same is true for κριθή (barley), ἄλευρον (meanl/wheat flour), and ἄλφιτον (grain), μέλι (honey), βούτυρον (butter). The English equivalent of this appears to be “some wheat,” “some barley,” and so on. Granted there are a few mass nouns in English that can be pluralized: oats is one that seems to allow that.

The other difference is lexical. There are a number of words that in English are more like count nouns than mass nouns. Beans can be counted. Why that’s the case, I have no idea. Is there an idiom somewhere for counting beans? But in Greek, κύαμον (bean), it is definitely a mass noun. Its used collectively in the singular in Ezekiel 4:9 and as a plural mass noun in Pausanias, Description of Greece (book 1, chapter 37).

As for Lentils…they’re kind of like oats in their mass/count semantic properties. Perhaps it would be best to say English also has a mixed category. Technically one would say that we can count lentils and oats, but it just doesn’t happen in normal usage – perhaps beans are in this one too.

4 thoughts on “Greek Mass & Count Nouns

  1. There certainly are anomalies here in English. Can one really use “oat” in the singular for one grain? Or is it only adjectival is in “oat cake”, “oat meal”? Yet I think we can speak of one lentil. Then consider the origin of “pea”: originally there was a mass noun “pease” as in “pease pottage”, which was reinterpreted as a plural “peas” from which was derived the singular “pea”.

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