The Unit of Comparison Problem


Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu


Research on a single language only requires language-specific features that can be defined using language internal criteria. The unit of comparison problem only becomes apparent when we try to use language-specific features to study another language.

Plural marking provides a good example of the comparison problem. Plural marking on count nouns is obligatory in English. “Two shoe” is ungrammatical. We use the gloss PL for the plural morpheme –s. In the process of glossing the –s morpheme we create an abstract grammatical category PL which invites its use as a unit of comparison with plural morphemes in other languages.


The Mayan language K’iche’ has two plural morphemes. K’iche’ uses the particle taq to mark the plural of all nouns and the particle ee to mark the plural of animate nouns. These particles can be used together (ee taq winaq, PL PL people, “people”) or singularly. They can also be omitted entirely. The text in Mondloch’s K’iche’ grammar only uses taq with 2 of 32 plural noun phrases (1978:192-203).


So despite having the same gloss, the English plural morpheme differs from the K’iche’ plural morphemes on many levels. The English plural morpheme is an affix whereas the K’iche’ plural morphemes are words that are similar to several or many in English. The English plural is obligatory whereas the K’iche’ plurals are optional. The English plural is used on count nouns whereas the K’iche’ plural ee is only used with animate nouns.

I conclude that the acquisition of the English plural bears no similarity to the acquisition of the K’iche’ plural markers. Researchers should not be misled by their glosses as PL. Crosslinguistic research cannot rely on glosses to solve the unit of comparison problem.


Nov. 19, 2017


Page last modified 11/25/17

© 2017 Clifton Pye