Usage of different plural systems in the same language

Constructed Languages Asked by Keith Morrison on August 20, 2021

Let’s assume a language once had an extensive plural system, indicating singular/dual/paucal/plural distinctions on nouns, pronouns, verbs, et cetera. Over time, as has happened in real languages, this was simplified to a simpler singular/plural system except in personal pronouns, which retained the original distinctions. In other words, the language would distinguish only between "woman" (one woman) and "women" (more than one woman), but when you used a pronoun, you’d have "she" (one woman), "she2" (two women"), "she+" (a few women), and "she++" (many women).

Your conversations would thus look like the following:

  • "That woman came out of the store. She is carrying a bag."
  • "Those women came out of the store. She2 are carrying bags." (Two women came out)
  • "Those women came out of the store. She+ are carrying bags." (More than two women came out)
  • "Those women came out of the store. She++ are carrying bags." (Many women came out)

A similar situation situation would occur with all personal pronouns.

So, the question: while this sort of thing is obviously possible, since I just described it, is this a feature which has been documented in a natural language? I’m not just restricting it the way I’ve done, but the general situation where the grammar of the language has simplified down the grammatical number, perhaps even to not having a singular/plural distinction at all, except for retaining a more elaborate grammatical number system in one single common grammatical element.

3 Answers

A similar system to the one you describe is attested in Fijian. Fijian has a single-dual-paucal-plural distinction in its pronouns only. However, almost every sentence must contain a subject pronoun. I'm not sure about the status of imperatives in Fijian. Fijian also has VOS word order, where S is a lexical subject.

Independent nouns themselves are not marked for number and the articles that introduce them are also not marked for number.

era la'o [a gone]
3PL go   DET child
The children are going

In other examples, a gone is glossed as the child. From this we can infer that the subject pronoun (or part of the verb phrase, depending on how you analyze it), is usually the only place in the clause where number is overtly marked. Pronouns can surface in other positions as well, and pronominal number contrasts are not neutralized when the pronoun isn't the subject.

As an interesting wrinkle, pronouns have a separate form that's used when they are the head of a noun phrase, including a subject noun phrase.

era sa  la'o [o   ira]
3PL ASP go   ART  3PL
"They are going"

But, pronouns can occur after the verb without being introduced by an article or a preposition if they are objects.

  o   aa   biu-ti  ira
2SG PAST leave-TR  3PL
"You left them"

More generally, it is somewhat common for pronouns or a subset of the pronouns to have a different number system than independent nouns. Proto-Germanic is reconstructed with dual number in first and second person pronouns and their corresponding verbal forms, but without the dual in the third person or in nouns.

Correct answer by Gregory Nisbet on August 20, 2021

An example from a different grammatical component, to widen the perspective.

In Czech, the former dual number has been retained as a special plural form for some paired body part nouns to distinguish them from their non-body-part meanings. For example, ucho means "ear" or "pot handle", uši - the former dual form - means "ears" (but not "pot handles") and ucha - the former plural form - means "pot handles" (not "ears"). Similarly for oko ("eye"/"flake of grease on a soup") with differing plurals oči/oka.

Answered by Jan Šimbera on August 20, 2021

Also attested in English, just not to the extent of your example.

Dual number existed in nouns & pronouns and was lost in nouns by Primitive Germanic times. Its use continued into West Germanic & Old English first & second person pronouns:

      s      d       pl
1     ic     wit     we
2     þu     yit     ye

Answered by elemtilas on August 20, 2021

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