I just recently learned about the distinction between paucal and plural forms in my native Serbo-Croatian.

Designating groups of counted nouns as smaller or larger than five adds complexity to the language without seemingly giving much in return.

This level of precision may seem exciting to a speaker of a language that distinguishes between the single and plural forms only, but in practical use I don't see much value in knowing whether there are two to four instances of something or five to infinity instances of the same thing.

What was the practical societal context that originated the paucal form? Where does the seemingly arbitrary limit of four come from?

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    Answers to this question suggest a distinction between "a handful of" objects that can be counted/estimated with a single glance of the eye versus "five or more" that require specific counting. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 8:00
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    Any answer to this would have to account for the practicality of the 'dual'. Which is to say, I don't think you have to account for it. There's no practical societal context to originate the decidedly more linguistically prevalent grammatical gender either.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:57
  • There are all kinds of semantic reasons to have duals. Lots of stuff (like humans and their body parts) come in pairs. As for paucals, they're rare, as noted. They seem to get used for any small subitizable group (see the magical number 7, plus or minus two).
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:10

4 Answers 4


I am pretty sure that the paucal form stems from proto-Slavic dual form which is distinct from plural, and is still present, in some form, in Slovenian language nowadays. The paucal form is not specific to BCS but to all Slavic languages with grammatical cases (this excludes Macedonian and Bulgarian). The paucal form includes numbers 2,3,4, whereas number 5 utilizes plural form.

As for your question "Where does the seemingly arbitrary limit of four come from?" I would say that it's related to the fact that humans can recognize amounts of up to 4-5 without even counting them.

  • Yes, this source also traces the paucal back to the dual on page 158: books.google.com/… Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 19:49
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    I doubt one could make an exact causal link between the paucal grammatical form and the counting phenomenon, but that phenomenon is known in cognitive psychology as subitizing
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:55

This phenomenon is not unique to Serbo-Croatian. It can be observed also in Arabic, where you have (for example):

singular: šahr = one month

dual: šahrayn = two months

plural of paucity: ʼašhur = 3 to 10 months

plural of multitude: šuhūr = more than 10 months

The dual suffix –ayn is proto-Semitic. It does not derive from the word “two”, but the word “two” is morphologically dual (e.g. Arabic iϑn-ayn). The two plural forms are not formed by adding any word to the singular but follow the rules for nominal derivation from a three-consonant root (in this case š-h-r).

As always in linguistics, none of this has any logical “reason”. Language has its own logic.


It's all about agreement so it's not a "real" paucal. All Slavic languages have it but it's most conspicuous in BCS and Russian.

BCS: Dva mlada čoveka (su došla)

Russian: Dva molodych čeloveka (prišli)

Czech: Dva mladí lidé (přišli) / pět mladých lidí (přišlo)

As you can see, different numerals require different cases but there's still only singular and plural as far as grammatical gender is concerned. In a formal grammar the rules that define agreement in NPs with numerals would use case and gender with two values (singular/plural). In BCS, for 2-4 the noun form is genitive singular and for 5+ it's genitive plural.


I guess that endings of "paucal forms" are nothing but a word meaning a few reduced to a morphem whose origin is no longer clear. In English you express the same idea not with a suffix but with expressions placed before the noun such as "a couple of, few/a few".

And I assume the same is true for so-called dual forms referring to two things. One may assume that dual morphems have their origin in a word for two.

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    Unfortunately, your "guess" and your "assumption" are both wrong, at least as far as Semitic is concerned. Please have a look at my answer.
    – fdb
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 13:36
  • @fdb - I would be more careful with conclusions. There can be more than one word for two; Latin has duo and the prefix bi-, German has zwei and beide, and what do we really know about old morphems for inflecton and word-formation.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 16:55
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    Actually, duo and bi- are etymologically the same, the latter with b < *dw.
    – fdb
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 17:04

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