I have been lured in by my friend Miriam who knows I like comparing different languages, especially their quirky aspects. This seems to be a good place to start such discussions.
I’d like to know if there are any unusual ways your native language forms plural. Any oddity, irregularity, even if it only applies to a couple of words.
My native language is Czech (ahoj to fellow Czechs ). Czech has three genders. For some reason, certain words change gender when there’s more of them. We have “oko” (eye) and “ucho” (ear), which are both neuter. However, in plural, they are feminines and follow the feminine declension. To make things even more confusing, this only applies if they refer to body parts. We also have “oko” meaning a tiny loop or a hole in tights and “ucho” meaning an ear-like handle of a cooking pot or a cup. Those get to keep their gender in plural.
two human ears = dvě uši (f)
two ear-like handles = dvě ucha (n)
The same thing happens to “dítě” (child, n). It turns into “děti” (f). “Děti” are feminine even if they’re a group of boys.
Please share your plural anomalies, I’m all (feminine) ears
Not my native language but something odd nevertheless: in Arabic there are some words that have several plurals. Take “tree” for example:
singular: شَجَرَة • (šajara) feminine - a tree
collective شَجَر (šajar) masculine - trees in general
dual شَجَرَتَان (šajaratān) - two trees
paucal (liitle plural) شَجَرَات (šajarāt) - 3 to 10 tress, some trees, a few trees
plural (big plural) أَشْجَار (ʾašjār) - (kinds of) trees
The dual is very common in Arabic but the paucal is only possible, well, with a few nouns. Imagine that such a simple sentence like “There are trees” is quite challenging to translate into Arabic. How many trees are we actually speaking of?
The only truly weird plural in Italian is “uomini” which means “men”. The singular is “uomo”, a syllable less. The extra syllable comes from Latin, where the two words used to be homo-hominis. On this note, I should also add dio-dei (meaning god-gods) which is totally irregular.
What you described in Czech happens in Italian as well. We don’t have declensions, but some words change their gender in the plural and some of these nouns even developed a second plural which matches the gender of the singular form of the noun* and which usually has a different meaning. For instance “il labbro” (meaning “lip”) is masculine and the plural is feminine (le labbra). However you could also have a masculine plural (i labbri) which refers rather to the edge of a pot or a vase. Sometimes the two plurals are just a regional preference (ex. “il ginocchio” is a knee and although in the standard language the plural is feminine (“le ginocchia”), I heard some people using the masculine plural, “i ginocchi”).
Other particular cases:
la mano (plural form: “le mani”, meaning “hand”) is feminine, but uses the typically masculine endings -o and -i;
- The word “eco” is feminine, although it ends in -o. This led people to mistake it for a masculine noun, so the plural form has fossilised as masculine: gli echi;
“ala” (“wing”) is feminine and although it stays feminine in the plural, it uses the masculine ending -i (“le ali”);
- A temple is a tempio, but in the plural the “i” becomes an “l” (“templi”). This is because in Latin the word was *templum", but in Italian “pl” became “pi”. It retained the L in the plural, because the regular form would be tempi, which is in turn the plural form of tempo (“time”).
*Once again, Latin is to blame. Latin used to have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Italian lost the neuter gender, which was characterised by the endings -um (sing.) and -a (pl.). -Um turned into -o (which is associated with masculine nouns in Italian) and -a stayed as-is. Because -a is associated with feminine nouns, the Latin plural form got mistaken for a feminine, so words like brachium-brachia (meaning “arm”) turned into il braccio-le braccia.
Thank you, that’s all new to me. I just found out that Czech used to have dual, which apparently is the reason why ears and eyes don’t quite fit in. The trees, though… I’m just picturing a speaker quoting Louis Armstrong “I see trees of green…” and the interpreter going “I quit”.
Thank you for the examples from Italian. A lot of my Italian is acquired rather than studied so it’s very helpful to see someone analyse it. It’s also interesting to see how these anomalies came about. Can’t blame people for mistaking “echo” for a masculine. If I’m correct it’s of Greek origin and Latin wasn’t too sure what to do with it, either. I guess that’s the one time something isn’t Latin’s fault By the way, knees are also weird in Czech but only in one case (instrumental)… so just a little weird. Again, a remnant of the now extinct dual.
Not my native language, but the French œil (n.m. “eye”) comes to mind. The plural is usually yeux, when we refer to an anatomical eye. This does not follow the typical ways for constructing French plurals:
To complete profitendieu’s answer: there are a couple of peculiarities in French plurals (we have some Latin words requiring Latin plurals, for instance stimulus => stimuli) but I’d say the most unusual plural forms in French are to be found in three words, which are amour (“love”), orgue (“organ”, the instrument) and délice (“delight”)". The plural construction itself is very regular (-s) but pluralizing these words actually turn them into feminine nouns requiring feminine agreements!
Un bel amour (“a beautiful love affair”) => de belles amours (feminine)
Un grand orgue (“a big organ”) => de grandes orgues (feminine)
These rules are less and less followed in modern French. There was also a rule requiring the feminine agreement of any adjective placed before gens (always plural, like “people” in English) => de bonnes gens, but speaking like this nowadays is highly literary and outdated.
Thank you for your collective contribution, @profitendieu and @monsieur_elephant.
There seems to be a theme (body parts) that appears across different languages. Would be interesting to see if this happens in languages other than the ones that have been mentioned so far.