Chapter 22: Occurrence of nominal plural markers

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 22.

1. Variable extent of plural marking

In many languages, nouns with plural meaning are plural-marked, and in some languages, this plural marking is so thoroughgoing that it is difficult to find contexts where no overt plural marking occurs. In European languages such as English and Spanish, for example, plural marking occurs even when the noun is combined with a numeral and plural marking is thus completely redundant (cf. 1c). Plural marking may also occur both on the noun itself and on a modifier or determiner (cf. 1d).

English Spanish
a. tree árbol
b. tree-s árbol-es
c. three tree-s tres árbol-es
d. these tree-s est-os árbol-es

Plural marking may be lacking only in compounding constructions in English (e.g. tree plantation), or with certain “collective” nouns that inherently denote a group of things or people (e.g. English furniture, Spanish gente ‘people’) and can never be used to refer to a single item.

But English and Spanish are fairly extreme. Many other languages have grammatical plural marking but do not require it when the meaning is plural, or restrict its use to certain kinds of words. In fact, there is an implicational scale that governs the ways in which plural marking can be limited (Smith-Stark 1974, Corbett 2000: 56):

speaker > hearer > 3rd person > kin > human > animate > inanimate

If a language allows or requires plural marking anywhere on the scale, then it also allows or requires plural marking for all higher positions on the scale. Moreover, when plural marking is optional, then the words higher on the hierarchy are more likely to bear a plural-marker than the words lower on the hierarchy.

The pidgin, creole and mixed languages of APiCS conform to this scale and sometimes use plural marking only with (personal pronouns and) human or animate nouns, not with inanimates. In addition to animacy, definiteness also often plays a role in plural marking, and again we find evidence for this in our languages: Definite nouns are more likely to show plural marking, and in fact quite a few of the APiCS languages allow plural marking only for definite nouns.

Plural marking can take various forms, as we will see in Chapter 23. Note that it need not be marking on the noun itself, but can be marking of the entire noun phrase. Cases where plural marking is found only on the article (as with most nouns in French, where the written plural suffix -s is not pronounced) are also regarded as plural marking. For more on plural marking in various creoles, see also Mühlhäusler (1981), Janson (1984), Manessy (1985), Lang (1990), Déprez (2007).

2. The values

The distribution of the four different values is shown in the value box:

No plural marking5
Variable plural marking of human nouns4
Variable plural marking of human or inanimate nouns51
Invariant plural marking16

Whereas all European languages as well as Arabic (i.e. the main lexifiers of the APiCS languages) show invariant plural marking like English and Spanish, the great majority of pidgin and creole languages show variable plural marking.

2.1. Value 1: No plural marking

In some languages, there is so little nominal plural marking that they are classified here as having no plural marking. This concerns especially some of the pidgins, but there is also one creole in this category (Portuguese-based Korlai). A few exceptions are recorded, however: In Eskimo Pidgin, there is a single attested singular/plural pair, innuk/innuit ‘man/men’, and Korlai, too, has just a single exception, mulɛr/muləris ‘woman/women’. Not accidentally, these exceptions are nouns denoting humans. Note that all that is claimed here is that these languages do not use plural marking with nouns. Personal pronouns are much more rarely neutral with respect to number (cf. the scale in 2), and in general these languages do make a number distinction in pronouns (e.g. Chinuk Wawa náyka ‘I’ vs. ntsáyka ‘we’, máyka ‘you (sg)’ vs. mtsáyka ‘you (pl)’).

2.2. Value 2: Variable plural marking of human nouns

In a few other languages, it is reported that plural marking is variable (i.e. does not occur under all circumstances) and is restricted to human nouns. Again, three of these are pidgins. Examples of plural use are Chinese Pidgin Russian ibəŋka isio zenʃinə [Japanese pl woman] ‘Japanese women’, Diu Indo-Portuguese (older generation lect) moyrmoyr ‘Muslims’ (singular moyr). The restriction to humans is not entirely certain for these languages; the three pidgins are extinct (or nearly extinct) and the data are somewhat limited. If plural marking was possible but uncommon for inanimate nouns, it may simply be unattested in the available materials. For Kriol, Schultze-Berndt & Angelo (2013) report that “plural marking with inanimates is rare and absence of plural marking with humans is rare, but variation is found in all categories”. If Kriol were not as well attested, it might have been classified as belonging to this category, too.

2.3. Value 3: Variable plural marking of human or inanimate nouns

In the great majority of the APiCS languages, plural marking is variable but possible for all kinds of nouns. This concerns especially those plural markers that were newly created in the creoles, such as words deriving from ‘all’ (e.g. Tok Pisin ol, Diu Indo-Portuguese tud) or words deriving from a noun meaning ‘group’ (e.g. Seychelles and Mauritian Creole bann, < French bande, cf. Bollée 2000).

But the majority of languages with innovated plural markers have plural words deriving from 3rd person plural pronouns (see Chapter 25):

the cows
the boys

Understandably, it is especially with plural markers of this latter type that a restriction to definite noun phrases is often reported. Personal pronouns are definite, so when a combination such as “they, children” becomes a single noun phrase, it is expected that it should retain the definiteness of the personal pronoun. In some of these languages, the plural marker is in fact described as a plural definite article. For instance, Sranan has the contrast a oso [ house] vs. den oso [ house]. This description is fully compatible with the view that den is a plural marker: It simply has a dual function, marking both definiteness and plurality.

In the Portuguese-based creoles Principense, Santome and Angolar, the plural marker is restricted to definite noun phrases, but it does not suffice as a definite article, at least for inanimate nouns. The latter need to be marked as definite by a demonstrative:

the children
the breadfruits
the children
these leaves

In Palenquero, by contrast, the plural marker ma is compatible not just with an indefinite interpretation, but even with an indefinite article:

some things (Spanish unas cosas)

As ma derives from the Kikongo (Bantu) gender-number prefix ma- rather than a definite element, this is not surprising.

2.4. Value 4: Invariant plural marking

Finally, invariant plural marking is reported for a number of languages. The Bantu-based languages Lingala, Kikongo-Kituba and Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu have preserved Bantu singular and plural prefixes (e.g. Lingala mo-báli ‘man’, mi-báli ‘men’), even though gender-number agreement has been lost in Lingala and Kikongo-Kituba. Invariant plural marking is also found in the mixed languages Michif (which uses the plural marker lii, from French les) and Sri Lankan Malay, as well as in African-American English and Afrikaans. In some of the Portuguese-based West African creoles that have preserved (or reborrowed) the Portuguese plural suffix -s, this is also said to be invariant. Finally, plural marking is reportedly invariant in several French-based creoles in the Caribbean (Guadeloupean and Martinican Creole, Guyanais, Louisiana Creole) as well as in Tayo.