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It is known that the plural -s suffix in English has Germanic origins, and is not a feature imported from French. However, to what extent does the use of -s for plurals in English have to do with the general French influence on English following the Norman conquest? (Or on contact with Latin or other Romance languages?)

In other words, is it a pure coincidence that modern English has (more or less) the same way of forming plurals as modern French and Spanish?

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  • -s is also in Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan; but not in Italian or Romanian. Dec 8, 2022 at 8:48
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    Does this answer your question? Does an -es suffix for plurality have Proto-Indo-European roots?
    – Anixx
    Dec 9, 2022 at 23:29
  • @Anixx that question does not answer this one, although it is related. Whilst the title and last sentence say "pure coincidence" (which can be ruled out by the linked question), the main paragraph makes it clear the question is asking about the fact the s-plural got generalised in Western Romance & English, and whether that generalisation is a coincidence, not whether the existence of the s-plural is a coincidence
    – Tristan
    Dec 12, 2022 at 10:17

2 Answers 2

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In Old English the most common single inflectional class are the masculine a-stems (counting the light and heavy subdeclensions of the neuter a-stems, feminine ō-stems, u-stems, and feminine root nouns as distinct), which form their plural in -as.

Reduction of final vowels would have led to almost total syncretism in the light feminine ō-stems (the next largest inflectional class), so analogy to some other class would be necessary, and we would expect this to (largely) be to the largest other inflectional class.

At this point, a large enough proportion of all nouns are following the old masculine a-stem inflection that it being used as a source of analogy for the remaining heavy ō-stems and neuter a-stems is natural and from there we arrive naturally at the situation of Middle English with two main inflectional classes: strong (with a plural in -es) and weak (with a plural in -en) with far more nouns in the former category. The development from that to Modern English is entirely expected.

At no point is it necessary to invoke influence from Norman French to explain the evolution, so by Occam's razor we should not accept this as evidence of Norman influence.

Note that Continental Germanic languages, which often do not use an -s plural so much started from a different point. In Old High German masculine a-stems formed their (nominative) plural in -ā (or -a). Likewise whilst Old Dutch does show masculine a-stems with a (nominative) plural in -as, they also show it in -a so it is no particular surprise that, like German, Dutch does not generally exhibit plurals in -s today.

The other Germanic languages that have lost similarly large amounts of their morphology are the (Continental) North Germanic languages, and there we see near universal use of a plural in -r, seemingly cognate with English's -s, from a dialectal difference in Proto-Germanic as to whether the masculine a-stem nominative plural ended in -z or -s (likely due to analogy between nominals with differing stress patterns prior to the application of Verner's Law) and of course there is no question of this being due to external influence in this instance.

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    I’m not convinced Occam’s razor is really the right term here. It’s not necessary to rely on Norman to explain the development, but given the ubiquity and intensity of Norman influence on English at the time, I don’t think it really goes against Occam’s razor to assume that Norman plurals in -s at least reinforced the development. Dec 7, 2022 at 23:27
  • Influence can go in either direction and we have not commented on French being influenced by English, or both by German, etc. Any such influence would also negate "pure coincidence". Dec 8, 2022 at 8:51
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    @hippietrail the -s plural is common to all of Western Romance, and not in German. That seems to rule out all the influences you suggest
    – Tristan
    Dec 8, 2022 at 9:42
  • @Tristan It should still be in an answer though. I'm certainly not knowledgeable enough to write one but I am interested enough to read a thorough one. Western Romance is right next to Germany after all and Italian and Romanian don't have -s and neither did Latin. Apparently there is a theory of a "Charlemagne Sprachbund". I don't know if plural formation has any part it that for instance. Dec 8, 2022 at 9:58
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    @hippietrail Italian plurals however are derived regularly from an original plural in -s (essentially, the s at the end of the word turns into -j and then unstressed diphthongs are reduced). We can see that this is what happened because it is identical to what happened to second person singular verb forms (where there are a few where the diphthongs are not reduced due to stress patterns, e.g. dai or fai). Dunno about Romanian but I'd expect a similar story there Dec 20, 2022 at 8:26
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In Proto-Indo-European the masculine and feminine nouns in nominative usually had zero ending or -s or -os. In plural these would beciome -es, -oes.

For instance,

u̯lq̆os wolf -> u̯lq̆oes wolfs

pa̯tēr father -> pa̯tres fathers

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