14

Under my answer to that question, I talked about a category of nouns that exist in Italian. The italian name is "Nomi sovrabbondanti" or "sostantivi sovrabbondanti", the meaning is roughly "overabundant nouns".

There are three subcategories for this type of nouns. Sometimes the plurals or the singulars are interchangeable, other times they have different meanings:

A - Nouns with 1 singular and 2 plurals:

  • Sing. — Braccio (A person's arm)
  • Plur. 1 — Bracci (armrests on an armchair, the jibs of a mechanical crane, a prison building's wings, etc.)
  • Plur. 2 — Braccia (2 or more people's arms)

B - 2 singulars and 2 plurals:

  • Sing. 1 — Orecchio (ear, this is the noun commonly used);
  • Sing. 2 — Orecchia (this is less used, I'm not sure but I think it's regional);
  • Plur. 1 — Orecchie (Ears, this is the plural commonly used);
  • Plur. 2 — Orecchia (it seems to be used in the non literal sense, like "A book full of ears")

C - 2 singulars and 1 plural:

  • Sing. 1 — Scudiero (squire, henchman);
  • Sing. 2 — Scudiere (Same meaning);
  • Plur. — Scudieri (this is the only plural)

My question is: Is this category present in other languages? I noticed English doesn't have one, but maybe I'm wrong, so I figured I would bring up this topic.

  • 1
    what are the reasons of the different singulars and plurals? – Louis Rhys Sep 18 '11 at 17:04
  • I don't know for sure, but I suppose that during the development of the italian language, some forms survived the "loss" of Latin and then the changes in the Vulgar, indicating different things but still related. – Alenanno Sep 18 '11 at 17:49
  • 1
    I don't have enough karma to comment, but wanted to say that other languages than English have multiple plurals. Some in German, like Wort. – diN0bot Apr 1 '12 at 2:45
  • @diN0bot Here the thing is a bit different. These plurals in Italian (note: my question didn't start from English) have different meanings, not different grammatical roles, as in with grammatical cases. They are sometimes not interchangeable, but other times they are. I wanted some good analysis of some languages taking this into account but so far I'm not satisfied with the answers. – Alenanno Apr 1 '12 at 10:10
  • There are two diminutives in Yiddish, ending in -əl and -ələ (pl -ləx and -ələx); the first indicates only diminutivity (of several sorts, as usual), but the second also indicates a close personal relation with the speaker, as in 'dear little', as it's often glossed. And there's a gender swap phenomenon in Quebec French that I've heard about but don't have references for. – jlawler Apr 7 '13 at 2:54
11

There is at least one case I can think of in English similar to this.

For many people (myself included) the plural of "mouse" in the computer sense is "mouses". So we have:

  • mouse (sing. 1) the animal or computer peripheral
  • mice (plur. 1) the animal
  • mouses (plur. 2) the computer peripheral

There are numerous languages that have (or had) a dual vs plural distinction (see this page) which seems to be related to what's going on in the "2 plurals" cases in Italian above.

Corbett's Number is the best reference on issues on number in general.

Another relevant reference is Acquaviva's Lexical Plurals which is specifically about cases like "mouse" and "fish" and "scissors" and "pants".

| improve this answer | |
  • Thanks for your answer. I took the liberty of correcting the links. :) This way it is easier to read your answer. – Alenanno Sep 18 '11 at 18:13
  • @Alenanno thanks, it definitely improves it. – James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 18:14
  • 1
    +1 for the mention of duals. In Indo-european this where the majority of the "two plural cases" come from. This is found all over Slavic (e.g. Polish oko 'eye', gen pl ócz / oczu, inst pl oczyma / oczami) and Celtic (e.g. Welsh bron 'breast', pl bronnyn / bronnau) – Mark Beadles Apr 6 '12 at 1:45
  • I've seen hackers galore who say "boxen" instead of "boxes" when referring to computer cases, just like "mouses" :) – Joe Pineda Nov 27 '13 at 12:53
9

This category by its name sounds like the opposite of "defective" where one or more usual forms are absent, generally used of verbs.

While I'm not sure whether this category of nouns exists in English I can think of a couple of English nouns that have more than one plural with differing senses (two plurals with the same sense is much more common).

The most commonly discussed example is probably fish.

  • Plural 1 is the usual, irregular plural actually taking the same form as the singular fish.
  • Plural 2 is the regular plural fishes but is restricted to referring to "several kinds of fish".

Another one I came across through participation in Wiktionary is datum.

  • Plural 1 is the irregular plural also alternatively (and sometimes controversially) used as a mass noun data.
  • Plural 2 is the quite unexpected regular plural datums, used only the field of cartography to mean "fixed reference points".

Which reminds me of another, also controversial case of multiple singular forms, but not so straightforward:

  • Dice is the accepted plural of die but dice is also in common use as a singular in which case it is an invariant noun.
| improve this answer | |
  • Whoa, datums? That sounds weird. :D – Alenanno Sep 17 '11 at 9:56
  • Would you mind adding, even if it's just a reference with one or two examples, if other languages present this feature? If none do, with some backup, that would be fine (to be added) too. – Alenanno Feb 9 '12 at 11:47
  • I really don't know but I'm pretty confident there must be cases of two different plurals of the same noun having different senses in other languages. – hippietrail Feb 9 '12 at 15:53
  • If you could include that, it'd be fantastic! Even formatted like a list, in your answer. – Alenanno Feb 9 '12 at 16:51
  • Like I say @Alenanno I really don't know - I included the ones I know which are from English but I would be shocked if these are the only ones among all the world's languages. – hippietrail Feb 10 '12 at 1:13
8

One example that comes into my mind:

  • person: A singular human
  • persons: Several but distinguishable human beings
  • people: A crowd, lots of humans

In German and Spanish it's exactly the same:

  • German: Person, Personen and Leute
  • Spanish: Persona, Personas and Gente

I guess other languages handle it the same or a least similar

| improve this answer | |
  • "People" wasn't originally a synonym for "persons" and apparently the subject was quite controversial in its day amongst prescriptivists. – hippietrail Sep 30 '11 at 15:50
  • 5
    There is also "peoples" meaning "different nations, ethnicities, etc." These were originally two nouns that got reanalyzed as a single form with a suppletive plural. But the regular plurals of both live on (with somewhat restricted meanings). – Aaron Sep 30 '11 at 19:01
  • 1
    Oh, that's interesting! In German, there is no plural of People. At least, nothing based in Leute. In Spanish there is Gentes, but not very common, meaning something like population - maybe like peoples? – craesh Oct 1 '11 at 14:39
  • As a native Spanish speaker, I can say that indeed "gentes" is considered incorrect (though more or less commonly used, at least in Mexico) when used in the sense of "persons", but is considered correct (though vary rare) when used in the sense of "different peoples" (from different nationality/ethnicity). – Joe Pineda Nov 27 '13 at 12:56
  • Gentes is not incorrect ( fundeu.es/consulta/gente-gentes-1187 ) although rarely used - as often happens with plurals or uncountable nouns. Anyway, "gente" is not the plural of "persona". That's different from the pair "person-people" in English. – Pere Jan 24 '17 at 22:35
6

Latin has a pretty large class of nouns like these, which are actually called abundantia in the grammatical tradition. They're second-declension nouns which occur as both masculine and neuter, with no difference in meaning. Examples: baculum/baculus 'staff', cingulum/cingulus 'belt', collum/collus 'neck', pileus/pileum 'cap', vallus/vallum 'palisade'.

Additionally there are third-declension nouns with two different stems, with identical meanings, e.g. femur 'thigh', stem femor- or femin-; iecur 'liver', stem iecor- or iecinor-. Or the meanings can be slightly different: pecus, pecor- 'herd of cattle' vs. pecus, pecud- 'single head of cattle'.

Ancient Greek also has some nouns with multiple stems, e.g. oneiros 'dream', stem oneiro- or oneirat-.

| improve this answer | |
2

I think it is quite widespread in Russian. The main competition happens between the -а/-я and -и/-ы forms, which were historically derived from PIE dual and plural.

тон "tone" - тона (about colors) - тоны (about sounds)

хлеб "bread" - хлебы (about bakery products) - хлеба (about kinds of grasses)

цех "plant workshop" or "medieval guild" - цеха "plant workshops" - цехи "guilds"

год "year" - года (as in "years passed", "in your years/age") - годы (as "in the 1990s years", "the years of youth", also can replace года everywhere)

Some forms can be used interchangeably:

слесарь - слесари/слесаря

шторм - штормы/шторма

| improve this answer | |
2

One example I've seen in pre-Modern English is the 2 plurals of "brother":

  • "Brothers" with the meaning of "my parent's other offspring"
  • "Brethren" meaning "people of my same religion or political affiliation"

English took most of its plurals from a single declension (accusative?). But in this case it preserved a plural from another case (nominative?) and gave it a slightly different meaning - I suspect the overabundant plurals in Italian have the same origin.

| improve this answer | |
0

I think, traditionally examples like A and B would just be considered homonyms, that is as two separate lexical entries which consequently are also allowed to have different plurals. There are other examples for this in other languages. Somebody mentioned German "Wort" (although in that case the meaning distinction is slowly getting lost, I think), "Bank" (with the plural either 'Banken' or 'Bänke', depending on the meaning) is another example.

C (and part of B) seems to me to just be free or regional variation. I don't see the connection to A.

But of course, theories of lexical semantics differ in many regards and you will find other people using different terminology or analyses.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.