Chapter 23: Expression of nominal plural meaning

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 23.

1. Types of plural marking

In this chapter, we look at the formal type of plural expression of nouns if plural is marked overtly. In some of our languages, nominal plural is not expressed overtly, and in many of them, plural expression is optional (see Chapter 22), and often uncommon in usage. In this chapter, we only look at the form of plural markers, regardless of how they are used. The values are based on Dryer (2005a).

Plural marking on nouns can be by an affix (prefix or suffix), by stem change or tone change, by reduplication, or by a plural word that occurs in the noun phrase, normally next to the noun. A plural prefix and a plural suffix is illustrated in (1)-(2).

man men
wall walls

Plural stem change is illustrated by (3a-c). This can be a slight change consisting only in a different vowel (as in 3a-b), or a radical change involving a new suppletive stem (as in 3c).

uman woman
umɛn women
madanm woman
medanm women
mára woman
nuswán women

Plural tone or stress change is attested only in a single language, Kinubi, where the stress shifts to the last syllable in some words:

Kinubi (Luffin 2013)
bágara 'cow' bagará 'cows'
sámaga 'fish' samagá 'fish (PL)'

Reduplication is quite common, but is rarely the only type of plural form:

Ambon Malay gunung gunung 'mountains'
Creolese buk buk 'books (all over)'
Kriol olgamanolgaman '(older) women'
Papiá Kristang kaza kaza 'houses'
Papiamentu repirepi 'strips'
Zamboanga Ch. pyédra-pyédra '(all the) stones'

Finally, many languages have a plural word:

a. plural word preceding the noun
Angolar ane alê 'kings'
Belizean Creole dem bway 'boys'
Saramaccan dɛɛ wɔmi 'the men'
Cavite Ch. manga estudiante 'students'
Juba Arabic nas zaráf 'giraffes'
Mauritian Creole ban liv 'books'
Michif lii maenzon 'houses'
Palenquero ma nimá 'animals'
Tayo te kas 'houses'
Tok Pisin ol liklik dok 'little dogs'
b. plural word following the noun
Creolese di kou dem 'the crows'
Haitian Creole liv yo 'the books'
Negerhollands di mēnshi sinu 'the girls'
Nigerian Pidgin got dè̱m 'goats'

2. The values

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

Plural is not expressed overtly707
Plural prefix415
Plural suffix82432
Plural stem change01212
Plural tone or stress change011
Plural reduplication41418
Plural word preceding the noun161127
Plural word following the noun41721

Plural prefixes are primarily found in languages that inherited their plural marking from Niger-Congo languages, such as Bantu languages (Kikongo-Kituba, Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu, Lingala) and Ubangian-based Sango (see also ex. 1).


The plural marking in Louisiana Creole is based on the French plural article les (lez ekol ‘(the) schools’) and is regarded as a prefix, too. None of the other French-based languages have this kind of plural-marking.

Plural suffixes are the norm in several of the Portuguese-based creoles (cf. Lang 1990, 1991), where the Portuguese plural suffix -s has been preserved (Cape Verdean Creole, Guinea-Bissau Kriyol, Sri Lanka Portuguese; see also ex. 2). The English plural suffix -s has also been preserved in many English-based creoles and pidgins, but is not as regularly used, and is often a more acrolectal form alongside a basilectal form with an innovated plural word. Kinubi and Juba Arabic have preserved some of the Arabic plural suffixation. New plural suffixes, which do not go back to plural markers of the lexifier, are found in Berbice Dutch (-apu) and Sri Lankan Malay (-pəɖə).

Plural stem change occurs quite marginally in the APiCS languages, and never as the only possibility of plural expression. Most of the cases are English-based languages that have preserved a few stem-changing plurals in high-frequency words (e.g. Bahamian Creole women, Gullah ʧaːl ‘child’ vs. ʧɪln̩ ‘children’, Hawai‘i Creole fit ‘feet’, Singlish mice). The Ghanaian Pidgin English example in (3a), where the stem change has been extended analogically from man/mɛn, is unusual. Among the French-based languages, examples of preserved stem-changing plurals like (3b) from Haitian Creole are very unusual too, though Michif also has a few (e.g. animal/zanimoo ‘animal(s)’).

Plural tone or stress change only occurs in Kinubi, as seen in (4) above. The stress change is the only trace of the Arabic plural suffix -aat: In Standard Arabic, the corresponding forms are báqara ‘cow’, baqar-áat ‘cows’. The long aa in the final closed syllable attracted the stress, and when the final t and the vowel length disappeared in Kinubi, only the final stress remained.

Plural reduplication occurs in many languages, but only for a few Asian languages it is the only option. Most of these are Malay-based (e.g. Ambon Malay, as in ex. 5) or under the strong influence of Malay (Batavia Creole, e.g. albër albër ‘trees’, Papiá Kristang kren-krensa ‘children’). Only Diu Indo-Portuguese restricts its plural expression to reduplication (e.g. muyɛmuyɛr ‘women’) but was not influenced by Malay.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of creoles is the plural word, a category quite unknown in European languages, though typologically not uncommon (Dryer 1989). Plural words may be preposed or postposed (the latter almost exclusively in Caribbean creoles). Plural words commonly derive from third person plural pronouns, as is also the case in a number of African languages (Manessy 1985). Examples are Angolar ane, all the English-based languages that use a form of them/dem for plural expression, Negerhollands sinu, Papiamentu nan, and Caribbean French creoles which use a form derived from eux (Haitian yo and others). These forms are often restricted to marking definite plurals, and they are sometimes regarded as definite articles (see Janson 1984 for discussion). However, as they also mark plural, they are considered to be also plural words here. See Chapter 25 for more discussion of the formal identity between 3rd person plural pronouns and plural markers. Almost all postposed plural words derive from 3rd person plural pronouns.

Another source of plural words is universal quantifiers meaning ‘all’. The plural marker ol is found in English-based languages in the Pacific (Tok Pisin, Bislama, Kriol, see Mühlhäusler 1981), and Tayo tule/tle/te has the same origin (French tous les ‘all the’).

Plural words may also come from substrate or adstrate languages (Chabacano manga, Palenquero ma, see Schwegler 2007), and from nouns meaning ‘(group of) people’ (Juba Arabic nas) or ‘group’ (Indian Ocean French creoles ban, from French bande ‘group’, see Bollée 2000).

Plural words are phrasal markers, and they need not be immediately adjacent to the noun. Thus, ol in ol liklik dok ‘the little dogs’ (see 6a) precedes the adjective. In Papiamentu, different orders of the postposed plural word are possible, with somewhat different interpretative possibilities:

the books of the school, the schoolbooks
the schoolbooks