If you’re anything like me, you often sit pondering the nature of countable nouns. The countability, or enumerability, of things is an important consideration – despite my spellchecker refusing to acknowledge it.
This is the idea that some nouns name individual things that one could count, and yet others name things whereby the quantity is unspecified or arbitrary, a non-individual thing or substance. And we use these nouns slightly differently. For example, with countable nouns like “squirrel”, “house”, and “tree”, we can talk about them like this:
There are two squirrels in a house.
But that would sound mega weird with uncountable nouns like “water”, “sand”, or “milk”:
There are two sands in a milk.
Because those are not countable; talking about one or more of them is a bit strange. There are some uncountable nouns, like “metal”, where we do sometimes use the plural to refer to many types of that noun (rather than individual instances). For example:
She held in her grasp two metals.This does not mean two bits of metal, this means two types of metal.
This is all largely the same in Esperanto, with the same words you’d expect. But there is an interesting word-building quirk to be aware of!
When we make words with the aĵ suffix, we make a concrete thing to do with the root word. For example: “utila” means “useful”, and “utilaĵo” is a “useful thing”.
And the quirk to be aware of is that words produced in this manner can frequently make sense as either countable or non-countable nouns, and you’ll find them in both uses. One example that PMEG discusses is “produktaĵo”. The verb “produkti” means “to produce” so “produktaĵo” is a thing which is produced, and can be countable or non-countable depending on context. It is like the difference between English “product” and “produce”, where “product” names individual countable things, but we talk about “produce” as we would “water”:
Kiam vi kolektos la produktaĵon de la tero…When you have gathered the produce of the land…
Sciuroj importas 75% de siaj produktaĵojSquirrels import 75% of their products.
Most of the time, context is gonna show you which you’d want to translate it as. And obviously the plural “j” is often a dead giveaway that we’re being countable. But sometimes, the sentence might be short enough that the meaning could go either way, the PMEG gives:
Li lavis tolaĵonCountable: He washed a linen (e.g. item of clothing made of linen)
Uncountable: He washed linen
By the way, the Esperanto for “to count” is “nombri” from “nombro” (number). So “countable” is “nombrebla”, which is pretty delicious in my books. It’s inspired me to prefer “numberable” in English over all the other pretenders: countable, numerable, enumerable…