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In languages that express grammatical number in nouns with suffixes, usually there is either a suffix added to an unsuffixed singular to form the plural (cat—cats), or the suffix (or inflectional ending) is replaced (Italian gatto—gatti).

Are there, however, any languages that consistently use unsuffixed plurals for nouns and add a suffix to form the singular?

I'm aware of Arabic examples such as ghurfah "room" — ghuraf "rooms", but they're rather sporadic and involve internal flexion. Collective nouns such as al-ˁarab being the basis for ˁarabîyyun "an Arab" come closer, but I'm not at all sure they're technically the same noun in different numbers, as opposed to separate nouns.

Theoretically, I can think of two scenarios in which suffixed singulars and unsuffixed plurals could occur: one where the plural inflectional ending is lost historically but the singular one remains, making it seem as though something is added to form the singular; and another one where all of the old inflexion is lost and there is no number distinction for a while, until a partitive suffix of some sort is grammaticalised as the new singular.

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Yes. Here's my answer to a similar question (What kind of pluralisation system does Welsh use?):

Some words in Welsh use a singulative/collective distinction instead of the singular/plural distinction used e.g. in English. This means exactly what you've shown: the collective term for '(a collective of) trees' is the root, and you add the singulative suffix to get 'a tree'. This is sort of analogous to 'a head of cattle' in English.

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  • Thank you. Wow, I've forgotten about that question even though I commented on another answer to it; but it must have been there at the back of my mind when I asked this one. Does the Welsh -en generally mean a unit of something? – Nikolay Ershov Jul 1 '15 at 22:31
  • @NikolayErshov yeah. I can think of a few others (casgen 'a barrel') and also -yn like cathyn 'a cat' (though this one is pretty rare. People would usually just use cath, and maybe only use this one to emphasize one, specific cat). – Danger Fourpence Jul 2 '15 at 2:45
  • Note: -yn and -en are simply gender variants of the same singulative suffix (-yn for masculine nouns, -en for feminines). Also, I wouldn't describe the singulative suffix as meaning "a unit of something" because as far as I know, it is not productively added to any given noun to mean "a unit of [noun]". – user8017 Jul 2 '15 at 12:58
  • I agree with user8017: -en is not freely productive. Some quite common words have the plural (or collective) as the root form, such as adar (birds) aderyn (bird); and even some relatively recent borrowed words such as bisged (biscuits), sg. bisgeden. But for most nouns the root form is the singular, and you can't add -en. – Colin Fine Jul 2 '15 at 18:56
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What you say about Arabic is a bit confused. ghurfa / ghuraf is a simple singular / plural situation, the plural being formed by restructuring the consonants of the singular (which is not at all "sporadic"). There are, however, words with a three-fold distinction between collective / singularative / plural, where the collective is the primary form, for example:

thamar = fruit (collective)

thamara = a piece of fruit

thimār = fruits

thamarāt = pieces of fruit

However, both thamar and thamara are grammatically singular (masculine and feminine respectively).

At a broader level: in English too the collective “fruit” is the primary form, while “a piece of fruit” is derived from it, though not by suffixation.

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One might say that plural endings are ultimately nothing but a noun + many, and a singular ending nothing but noun + one. Of course, this is a mere hypothesis and it would be difficult to find any evidence for it, as such things go back to earliest stages of language. But we may assume that singular and plural endings didn't fall from the sky. Man has developed them. At a later stage these endings may have been replaced by morphems developed from words as he/she/it and they.

So it is not very probable that speakers say "tree+many+one" or "warrior+they+he".

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  • Language has no inherent memory for etymology and endings disappear all the time. It's not very probable in and of itself that a language will have a "one" ending rathen than a "many" ending, but once the original "many" ending is lost, it's no longer a factor. – Nikolay Ershov Jul 5 '15 at 8:45
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Ukrainian has some nouns like that:

листя - leaves (collective)

листок - a leaf

насіння - seeds (collective)

насінина - a seed

бадилля - the tops foliage (collective)

бадилина - a single stem or a leaf of a plant

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  • I am quite sure я in листя is ending, so the both plural and singular forms have an ending. – Anixx Jul 5 '15 at 15:00
  • @Anixx : -я is really the ending of the Nominative case singular neuter gender, Ukrainian neuter gender nouns, just like Russian neuter gender nouns, all have a Nominative case ending. But -ок in листок is not an ending, it's a suffix, and the noun is masculine with a zero Nominative case ending. Here's another Ukrainian word: люди (people, plural) – людина (a person, singular). – Yellow Sky Jul 5 '15 at 15:43

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