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I've been wondering about this for a while. It makes sense intuitively, but I feel this is probably partly due to having been conditioned to think about it this way throughout all our lives, because it's just the way most languages work.

Coming from a mathematical background, I can see why the number 1 is different than any other number. One is the unit. Everything else is a multiple of 1.

But is there, formally, a reason why most languages treat singular nouns differently than their plural forms? Why do we add an -s at the end of the word in English, why does the ending change according to plurality in Italian, so on and so forth.

Like I already said, it makes sense intuitively, but I'm trying not to use intuition and habit and instead try to work out a rigorous and formal explanation for that.

Any input is highly appreciated.

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    First, it is not true that most languages "have a different form for singular vs plural nouns". Many do. But many don't, also. Second, number is only one of the things that can get inflected on nouns - there is also case and gender, not to mention possession and definiteness. Different languages find they need to mention different things. There is no particular reason why we treat singular different from plural linguistically, but we always treat individual, countable things (which have plurals) differently from mass, liquid, or granular things (which don't have plurals, for the most part). – jlawler Feb 23 at 22:58
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    The majority of the languages where I live (eg Chinese languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka etc. Malay-Austronesian languages like Malay, Indonesian, Javanese, Maori etc.) don't have separate plural forms. Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil and Telugu do have plural forms but from my point of view Indian languages can be seen as Western languages – slebetman Feb 24 at 10:52
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    @slebetman about half of the languages of India are Indo-European languages that are strongly related to most languages of Europe, so it's obvious that they can be seen as having "western" features. – Robert Columbia Feb 24 at 13:28
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    @jlawler It is true that most language do "have a different form for singular vs plural nouns". If look at chapters 33 and 34 on WALS, you can see that although a decent minority do indeed lack any such strategy, the majority pattern is actually to possess one. (Unless of course I myself am misunderstanding the WALS data). – Miztli Feb 24 at 13:29
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    As for, "we always treat [...] countable things [...] differently from mass [...] things", if you mean conceptually, you are indeed most likely correct; however, if you mean grammatically, this is quite a contentious issue (see e.g.: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/762/13303). – Miztli Feb 24 at 13:35
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First, though you probably already know this, not all languages have different forms for singular and plural nouns. Some don't mark number at all, while others have more fine-grained distinctions, using different forms for "one thing" versus "two things" versus "more than two things", or "a small number" versus "a large number". Many languages also mark nouns for things that aren't number, such as gender and case.

But regardless, number marking is extremely common. Quite a lot of languages do it: one of Greenberg's "universals" is that no language marks gender unless it also marks number. And it happens across all sorts of different language families with no known genetic relationship to each other.

So the most common hypothesis I've heard is that "one" versus "more than one" is a distinction that's built into the human brain at a fundamental level—in a way that, say, "eight" versus "more than eight" is not. Since this is something we recognize very early and very easily, it makes sense to indicate it in our language.

No natural language on earth, for example, actually has a separate form for "eight items" versus "not-eight items", or even for "two items" versus "not-two items" (that is, no language has a form meaning "either one or three-plus").

Many have a separate form for "exactly one", some have a separate form for "exactly two" (but only if they also have an "exactly one"), and a rare few have a separate form for "exactly three" (but only if there's also an "exactly one" and an "exactly two"). And these are all quantities that are quickly and instinctively recognized by infants from a very young age.

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  • What first comes to my mind as a reason for having a distinction of one vs. many is that it's natural, or call it embedded into human consciousness: every human being differentiates between oneself and the others, me and y'all, one and many. What do you think of it? – Yellow Sky Feb 24 at 1:19
  • @YellowSky The distinction between me and everyone else does not require a grammatical plural. For example, in English, everyone is singular even though it includes me and you. – Henry Feb 24 at 11:51
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    This reminds me of the common trope (not sure how true it is) that some primitive societies don't have distinct words for numbers beyond "one, two, many". Larger numbers don't become necessary unless there's commerce and the need to track precise amounts of things owned and traded. – Barmar Feb 24 at 15:48
  • Of course, the mathematician asking the question is at this point asking xyrself why you think that these languages have a marked form for exactly one, when you've used those same forms for zero three times in this very answer. (-: – JdeBP Feb 24 at 18:18
  • @Henry - It was you who first mentioned "everyone else", I wrote about "the others". Naturally, "everyone" is singular, "the others" is plural, though. – Yellow Sky Feb 24 at 19:02
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It is worth mentioning the fact that there seems to be some correlation between the numbers which languages may mark, and the numbers which human brains can treat differently. We can subitise small numbers, 1 to approx. 5, and so far as we've observed, languages are completely unable to mark for any number outside this range.

This suggests that the motivation for grammatical number is neurological somehow.

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  • That's possible; but other things that many languages mark on nouns (eg noun-class, case, alienabililty, respect) are not directly correlated with the perceptual world, which makes this argument look a bit like an explanation looking for something to explain. – Colin Fine Feb 24 at 11:53
  • Subitisization is a necessary condition, but it's far from sufficient, so there is little basis for thinking there is much connection. – Acccumulation Feb 24 at 21:35
  • @Accumulation why would you say it is not sufficient? – Wilson Feb 25 at 6:06
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A single noun is fundamentally different from a plural one, because once you have more than one of something, ascribing an action or property becomes nontrivial. You have the issue of quantifiers. On one extreme you have the universal quantifier: "Friends don't let friends drink" implicitly means "All friends don't let friends drink". On the other end, there's the existential quantifier: "I have bananas at my house" implicitly means "There exists bananas at my house"; clearly it's not "all bananas are at my house. Then there are quantifiers in between, such as "most".

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  • What makes you think that it is the absence of an overt quantifier in Friends don't let friends drink that implies the universal quantifier? In English, plural noun phrases without a determiner are considered to be indefinite, and that's all to it. I'm meeting friends doesn't implicitly mean "I'm meeting all friends", and Friends are visiting later doesn't implicitly mean "All friends are visiting later". With regard to your bananas example, the meaning of "existing" doesn't come from the noun, but from the verb: I hate bananas at my house implies no existential quantification. – Schmuddi Feb 25 at 15:01
  • @Schmuddi "What makes you think that it is the absence of an overt quantifier in Friends don't let friends drink that implies the universal quantifier?" I don't. "In English, plural noun phrases without a determiner are considered to be indefinite" No, the quantifier is determined by context. – Acccumulation Feb 26 at 5:59

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