LINGUIST List 5.971

Thu 08 Sep 1994

Sum: Plurals in '-s'

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  1. , Summary: plurals in '-s'

Message 1: Summary: plurals in '-s'

Date: Thu, 08 Sep 1994 16:25:45 Summary: plurals in '-s'
Subject: Summary: plurals in '-s'

On August 18, I threw out the following question to the list:

A colleague who makes his living as a translator of technical dox asked
me something yesterday that I couldn't answer. "But", I told him, "I bet I
know where to find some folks who CAN answer.!" So, folks, here it is:
"How did it come about that Western European languages such as
English, French, Spanish and Portuguese have chosen to make most
plural words by adding an 's' or 'es' to the singular? Italian, Greek,
German, and, I believe, the Slavic languages do not do this. Latin did not

Herewith, a compilation of responses to this question.

With respect to the Romance languages, the answers generally went like

A partial answer wrt Romance. First of all, the "Latin did not either" bit
is incorrect. Most accusative plurals ended in -AS, -OS, or -ES - and
that's where the Western Romance languages got their plural -s from. In
Italian, it seems the nominative plural endings (-AE, -I, -ES) were
generalised and passed on to the accusatives.The class of plurals in -ES
was eventually redistributed over the two others, which gives you the
modern Italian situation of plurals in -e and in -i. All Romance
languages, as far as I know, continued the accusative forms only, except
in some marginal cases.
The Slavic answer was pretty straightforward:

They do not occur in Slavic at all. Proto Slavic went through a period
when all syllables become open, hence word final (syllable final) s was
You might try the Baltic languages which didn't go through that.
Everything seems to end in 's' in Latvian.

With respect to English, answers of the following sort were typical:

Actually the Latin accusative plurals and dative and ablative plurals
in all genders ended in -s. In early English, when it was still an
inflected language using many of the Latin endings, the vowel endings
dropped as time went on. This meant that the only distinguishing
feature separating plural from singular nouns was the -s termination.
So, English did get it from Latin (Greek had -s plurals too).

A fairly complete answer went like this:

Just saw your query on Linguist. The answer is historical accident,
in that Proto-Indo-European had a number of plural types in -s, which
have survived in various shapes in different groups within the larger
family. E.g. Old English had a set of plurals in -as, which are the
source of our modern -s plurals, and this -s- element also appears
in Latin in some declensions. A contributing factor to the
preservation of these is that many other plural types were marked by
vowels or nasals, and these tended to drop in some languages. But
many languages in the groups don't use the -s plurals: e.g. Italian
has retained vowel plurals (-o sg vs. -i pl for masculines, -a sg vs.
-e pl for feminines), and Icelandic and Swedish don't use the -s
either, but later developments in -r, among other things. The secret
is which of the ancestral plural types happened to get generalized.
(E.g. also German doesn't use -s much except in special vocabulary,
while Dutch does more, and Afrikaans still more, to take another
subfamily). Hope this is of some use.

Some were as intrigued as my colleague was:

Romance -s stems from Vulgar Latin, not Classical Latin, and is
generally (I think) held to derive from Classical Latin accusative forms in
-es, -as, -os etc. English -s is a loan from French, the Germanic plural
in English being seen today only in the marginal cases like feet and oxen
(ah, but WHY???).
Note the increase in -s plurals in Dutch (phonologically determined) and
German (morphologically and phonologically determined: die
Autos, die UFOs), the first (I presume) French influence, the second
possibly English influence.

And my final correspondent even put in a nice cite:

Middle English (1100-1500) -s or -es comes from the strong declension,
-en from the weak. Old English had some plurals in -as, which became
-es in Middle English.

The -(e)s plural spread rapidly in the North of England, becoming the
norm in the Midlands by 1200. In 14th c., it became the norm all over

See Baugh, A Hist. of the English Language, 2nd ed.,
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957, pp. 191-192 for full explanation.

Thanks are due to all my respondents:

 Evan Smith, Laurie.BAUER
 Margaret Winters
 Adger Williams Leslie Barrett
 Lee Hartman Bert.Peeters
 M. Picard Richard DeArmond
 Pat Crowe Donald Hook
 Michael Covington

I hope everyone else finds this as interesting as I did.

George Gale
Philosophy & Physical Science
U. MO K.C.

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