Collective noun

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In linguistics, a collective noun is a word which refers to a collection of things taken as a whole. Most collective nouns in everyday speech are mundane and are not specific to one specific kind, such as the word "group," which may apply to "people" in the phrase "a group of people," but may also correctly refer to "dogs" in the phrase "a group of dogs". Other collective nouns are specific to one kind, especially terms of venery, which are words for specific groups of animals. For example, "pride" as a term of venery will always refer to lions, but never to dogs or cows.

Morphological derivation accounts for many collective words. Because derivation is a slower and less productive word formation process than the more overtly syntactical morphological methods, there are fewer collectives formed this way. As with all derived words, derivational collectives often differ semantically from the original words, acquiring new connotations and even new denotations.

The English endings -age and -ade often signify a collective. Sometimes the relationship is easily recognizable: baggage, drainage, blockade. However, even though the etymology is plain to see, the derived words take on a distinct meaning.

German uses the prefix ge- to create collectives. The root word often undergoes umlaut and suffixation as well as receiving the ge- prefix. Nearly all nouns created in this way are of neuter gender. Examples include:

  • das Gebirge, "group of hills, mountain range" < der Berg, "mountain" or "hill"
  • das Gepäck, "luggage, baggage" < der Pack, "pack, bundle, pile"
  • das Geflügel, "poultry, fowl (birds)" < late MHG gevlügel(e), under the influence of der Flügel, "wing" < MHG gevügel < OHG gifugili = collective formation of fogal, "bird"
  • das Gefieder, "plumage" < die Feder, "feather"

Dutch has a similar pattern, but sometimes uses the (unproductive) circumfix ge- -te:[1]

  • berg 'mountain' > gebergte 'mountain range'
  • been 'bone' > gebeente 'skeleton'
  • vogel 'bird' > gevogelte 'poultry'
  • blad 'leaf' > gebladerte 'foliage'

The following Swedish example has different words in the collective form and in the individual form:

  • An individual mosquito is a mygga (plural: myggor), but mosquitos as a collective is mygg.

Esperanto uses the collective suffix -ar to produce a large number of derived words, such as

  • monto 'mountain' > montaro 'mountain range'
  • birdo 'bird' > birdaro 'flock'
  • arbo 'tree' > arbaro 'forest'
  • libro 'book' > libraro 'library'
  • manĝilo 'utensil' > manĝilaro 'silverware', 'cutlery'

Metonymic merging of grammatical number

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Two good examples of collective nouns are "team" and "government", which are both words referring to groups of (usually) people. Both "team" and "government" are count nouns. (Consider: "one team", "two teams", "most teams"; "one government", "two governments", "many governments"). However, confusion often stems from the fact that plural verb forms are often used in British English with the singular forms of these count nouns (for example: "The team have finished the project."). Conversely, in the English language as a whole, singular verb forms can often be used with nouns ending in "-s" that were once considered plural (for example: "Physics is my favorite academic subject"). This apparent "number mismatch" is actually a quite natural and logical feature of human language, and its mechanism is a subtle metonymic shift in the thoughts underlying the words.

In British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms depending on the context and the metonymic shift that it implies. For example, "the team is in the dressing room" (formal agreement) refers to the team as an ensemble, while "the team are fighting among themselves" (notional agreement) refers to the team as individuals. This is also British English practice with names of countries and cities in sports contexts; for example, "Germany have won the competition.", "Madrid have lost three consecutive matches.", etc. In American English, collective nouns almost invariably take singular verb forms (formal agreement). In cases where a metonymic shift would be otherwise revealed nearby, the whole sentence may be recast to avoid the metonymy. (For example, "The team are fighting among themselves" may become "the team members are fighting among themselves" or simply "The team is fighting.") See Comparison of American and British English - Formal and notional agreement.

A good example of such a metonymic shift in the singular-to-plural direction (which, generally speaking, only occurs in British English) is the following sentence: "The team have finished the project." In that sentence, the underlying thought is of the individual members of the team working together to finish the project. Their accomplishment is collective, and the emphasis is not on their individual identities, yet they are at the same time still discrete individuals; the word choice "team have" manages to convey both their collective and discrete identities simultaneously. A good example of such a metonymic shift in the plural-to-singular direction is the following sentence: "Mathematics is my favorite academic subject." The word "mathematics" may have originally been plural in concept, referring to mathematic endeavors, but metonymic shift—that is, the shift in concept from "the endeavors" to "the whole set of endeavors"—produced the usage of "mathematics" as a singular entity taking singular verb forms. (A true mass-noun sense of "mathematics" followed naturally.)

Nominally singular pronouns can be collective nouns taking plural verbs, according to the same rules that apply to other collective nouns. For example, it is correct British English or American English usage to say: "None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right." In this case, the plural verb is used because the context for "none" suggests more than one thing or person.[2]

Terms of venery (words for groups of animals)

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The tradition of using "terms of venery" or "nouns of assembly"—collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals—stems from an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It is marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. These elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions. The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) distinguished three types of droppings of animals, and three different terms for herds of animals. Gaston Phoebus (14th century) had five terms for droppings of animals, which were extended to seven in the Master of the Game (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to c. 1452 under the heading of termis of venery &c., extends to 70 items,[3] and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items, many of which, even though introduced by the compaynys of beestys and fowlys, do not relate to venery but to human groups and professions and are clearly humorous, such as a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, a Fightyng of beggers, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women, a Disworship of Scottis etc.[4][5]

The Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and was reprinted frequently. Gervase Markham edited and commented on the list in his The Gentleman's Academic in 1595. The book's popularity had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon, even though they have long ceased to have any practical application.[6] Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.[citation needed] The popularity of these terms in the early modern and modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous light-hearted, humorous or facetious[7] collective nouns.

See also

Linguistics concepts


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  2. Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000), p. 10.
  3. David Dalby, Lexicon of the Mediaeval German Hunt: A Lexicon of Middle High German Terms (1050-1500), Associated with the Chase, Hunting with Bows, Falconry, Trapping and Fowling, Walter de Gruyter, 1965, ISBN 978-3-11-081860-4, p. xli.
  4. 1901 facsimile reprint, E. Stock, London (pp. 115-117).
  5. Transactions of the Philological Society Volume 26, Issue 3, pages 79–175, August 1909
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Further reading

  • Hodgkin, John. Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St Albans", 1486, entitled "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys" and similar lists., Transactions of the Philological Society 1907-1910 Part III, pp 1 – 187, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner & Co, Ltd, London, 1909.
  • Shulman, Alon. A Mess of Iguanas... A Whoop of Gorillas: An Amazement of Animal Facts. Penguin. (First published Penguin 2009.) ISBN 978-1-84614-255-0.
  • Lipton, James. An Exaltation of Larks, or The "Veneral" Game. Penguin. (First published Grossman Publishers 1968.) (Penguin first reprint 1977 ISBN 0-14-004536-8); in 1993 it was republished in Penguin with The Ultimate Edition as part of the title with the ISBN 0-14-017096-0 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-670-30044-0 (hardcover)
  • PatrickGeorge. A filth of starlings. PatrickGeorge. (First published PatrickGeorge 2009.) ISBN 978-0-9562558-1-5.
  • PatrickGeorge. A drove of bullocks. PatrickGeorge. (First published PatrickGeorge 2009.) ISBN 978-0-9562558-0-8.