A Comparative Challenge: The Germanic Plural


Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu


A comparative study of how children acquire plural markers begins with a comparison of the contexts in which languages use plural markers. It’s not unusual for languages to have more than one plural marker form so the contexts of use have to be established for each form.Roger Brown (1973: 307-311) provides a basic description of the contexts of use for plural marker forms in English. English has plural forms for count nouns, pronouns and determiners. It does not have plural forms for proper nouns and mass nouns other than in exceptional cases (‘those waters’). English has a regular plural form /-s/ (dog-s) and four irregular plural forms: /-en/ (‘women’), /ablaut/ (‘feet’) and zero (‘fish’). The fourth irregular form is borrowed from Latin: /-a/ (alumna). Both personal and demonstrative pronouns in English have plural forms. First and third person pronouns have plural forms (‘we’ and ‘they’), and the demonstrative pronouns have the plural forms ‘these’ and ‘those’. English also has plural articles (e.g., ‘two’, ‘some’). All of these forms are obligatory in contexts with more than one referent.


I use a table to display grammatical forms and their contexts of use. Table 1 shows the contexts of use for English plural forms. Research on the acquisition of English plural forms would need to show how children use each of these forms in singular and plural contexts over time. While research exists on the acquisition of some of these forms, we still lack a comprehensive picture of how children mark plurals across all of these domains. I include the proper nouns and mass nouns in the table because it is just as important to establish when children acquire constraints on plural marking as to establish the productive use of plural marking. Research on how children use the “regular” and “irregular” plural forms arbitrarily lumps together different irregular forms as if such distinctions were of no importance.


Table 1. Contexts of use for English plurals


English

Common nouns

 /-s/

 /-en/

 ablaut

 zero

 /-a/

Personal pronouns

 we/us

 they/them

Demonstrative pronouns

Articles

Proper nouns

Mass nouns

 

While the table of English plural forms shows what is necessary for a detailed description of plural acquisition it is not complete. We can improve the plural acquisition study by adding the same information for the other Germanic languages. A comparison of plural acquisition in English and Dutch, for example, provides a new perspective on the accomplishments of the children acquiring the English plural.

 

The Dutch Grammar webpage by Bieneke Berendsen details the Dutch plural forms and their use. Table 2 compares these Dutch forms with their English cognate forms.

 

Table 2. Comparison of English and Dutch plural forms

 

English

Dutch

Common nouns

Common nouns

 /-s/

 /-s/

 /-en/

 /-en/

 

 /-s/ or /-en/

 ablaut

 vowel length

 zero

 

 /-a/

 /-a/

 

 /-eren/

 

 /-heden/

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns

 we/us

 we, wij/ons

 you/you

 jullie, jullie/jullie

 they/them

 ze, zij/ze, hen

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns

Articles

Articles

Proper nouns

Proper nouns

Mass nouns

Mass nouns

 

There is considerable overlap between the plural forms of common nouns in English and Dutch. Whereas the division between the English nouns that take the regular and irregular plural forms is arbitrary, the Dutch nouns that take /-s/ are predicted by their phonological forms (1). The other Dutch nouns take the /-en/ plural or one of the other irregular forms.

 

(1) Dutch nouns that take -s:

            Nouns that end in a single vowel

            Nouns that end in an unstressed vowel combination

            Nouns that end in the unstressed endings -el, -em, -en, -er, -erd, -aar, -aard, or -um

            Nouns that end in the stressed endings -eur and -foon

            Titles or professions that end in -oor or -ier

            Foreign words that also take the plural -s in their original language

            Names of letters and acronyms

Like English, Dutch pronouns are marked for nominative, accusative and genitive case. Unlike English, Dutch makes a contrast between stressed and unstressed pronoun forms. The unstressed first person plural pronoun is ‘we’, whereas the stressed form is ‘wij’. The Dutch second person plural pronoun ‘jullie’ contrasts with the second person singular form ‘je’ (informal) and ‘u’ (formal). The second person plural pronoun does not change when stressed.

 

Dutch has plural demonstratives and articles like English. Dutch has two definite articles: ‘de’ and ‘het’. The plural form of both definite articles is ‘de’.

 

While many of the Dutch plural forms are cognate with the English forms (because they share a common historical origin), the Dutch plural forms are more predictable than the English plurals. In principle, we could compare the frequencies of the /-s/ and /-en/ nouns in English and Dutch to see whether the input frequency has the same effect in English and Dutch. The shared plural forms derived from the common history of these two Germanic languages makes it possible to imagine comparative studies that would be impossible to carry out between historically unrelated languages.

 

To round out this study I provide a comparison of the English and Dutch plural forms with those of German.

 

Table 3. Comparison of English, Dutch and German plural forms

 

English

Dutch

German

Common nouns

Common nouns

Common nouns

 /-s/

 /-s/

 /-s/

 /-en/

 /-en/

 /-(n)en/

 

 /-s/ or /-en/

 

 ablaut

 vowel length

 ablaut

 zero

 

 zero

 

 

 /-e/, /ë/

 

 

 /-n/

 

 

 /-er/, /ër/

 /-a/

 /-a/

 /-a/

 

 /-eren/

 

 

 /-heden/

 

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns

 we/us

 we, wij/ons

 wir/uns

 you/you

 jullie, jullie/jullie

 ihr/euch

 they/them

 ze, zij/ze, hen

 sie/sie

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns

Articles

Articles

Articles

Proper nouns

Proper nouns

Proper nouns

Mass nouns

Mass nouns

Mass nouns

 

            The Comparative Challenge is to produce a comprehensive study of plural acquisition for English, Dutch and German.

 

Nov. 25, 2017

 

Page last modified 11/25/17

© 2017 Clifton Pye