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Pint of Science talk by doctoral researcher Vicky Noble: Counting sheep, fruits and bloods

Posted on 29 May 2024

Doctoral researcher Vicky Noble presented aspects of her research to a lay audience on May 15th during the Pint of Science event in The Winning Post, York.


Counting sheep, fruits and bloods: What is the interaction between perceptual and linguistic systems?


When we interact with the world, we implicitly categorise things. For example, we perceive sheep and apples as solid objects, and perceive oil and blood as liquid substances. Does this perceptual categorisation cross over to language? At first, it seems like the answer is yes. We can count solid objects: one chair, two apples, three sheep. We cannot count liquids: one water? two oils? three bloods? However, there are cases where we cannot count solid objects: one cattle? two furnitures? three fruits? So, with respect to counting, what is the interaction between perceptual and linguistic systems?

Some thoughts from Vicky:

“I work on the structure and meaning of how languages count things. One of the questions I've been exploring is: when we count, what are we actually counting?

For example, we can easily count most solid objects, but it's really difficult to count liquids, unless we assume some sort of context. 

James saw three chairs in the garden

James bought three beers for everybody (= three pints of beer)

Context for counting liquids is key. If you try and count a liquid that doesn't come in standard portions, it's really weird

James bought three bloods for everybody (= three pints of blood????)

... unless you assume James is a vampire at a vampire bar buying drinks for his vampire friends.

The basic idea once was that all solid items are perceptually distinguishable in a way that liquids are not. It's easy to think about what one chair is, so we can think about multiple chairs. But for liquids? It's hard to think about what one liquid is, so we created one in context, and then count it. 

However, not all solids are countable

James saw three furnitures in the garden

is really weird, even though it talks about the same stuff as the chairs. I can mentally count the furniture, but English does not let me count the noun furniture. Unless I use another word to help me count:

James saw three pieces of furnitures in the garden

I've been exploring these patterns in English, Welsh and Arabic to try and discover exactly where these patterns occur, and to ask: why do our languages do this at all?”