Pluralism in plurality

29 August 2014

In English, the plural only distinguishes between singular and non-singular: I, he, and she refer to one person, we and they refer to more than one. Most languages make the same simple distinction. But other languages are more mathematically precise about how many more than one we're talking about. They have a separate form for a dual, used to refer to exactly two entities. In those languages singular means one, dual means two, and plural means more than two.

Arabic, for instance, makes use of a dual. It has separate personal pronouns meaning 'both of you', and 'the two of them' (antuma أنتما and huma هما). Where English attaches a plural suffix -s to nouns, Arabic also has a dual suffix, which is used for nouns which usually come in pairs, like eyes, ears, arms, and legs. Quite a few European languages (including English) also used to have a dual in an older stage of their development, but it was lost through time in most of them. Today, Slovenian is a rare exception and still uses a dual.

Some other languages count higher and distinguish another non-singular form: the trial (3). This one only exists for personal pronouns though ('the three of us', 'the three of them'), there is no separate trial suffix for nouns.

A few languages are even said to have a quadral (4), for example Sursurunga, a language spoken on New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Research suggests, however, that it should rather be considered a paucal, meaning 'some but not many', contrasted with a plural meaning 'many'.

Yumi, yumi, yumi

Many languages with special kinds of plurals can be found in Oceania. My personal favourite is Bislama, a language spoken in Vanuatu, a subtropical archipelago nation in the Pacific. Bislama is an English creole language, meaning it is a mixed language that emerged as a result of communication between English-speaking colonists dealing with the indigenous people which was then passed on as a mother tongue.

tropisch strand

The result is a language where most words have English origin, but much of the grammatical structure is native to Oceania. Hence the beautifully complex system of personal pronouns. But despite its complexity, it is very transparant because the pronouns are all constructed from English words:

  • mi ('me')
  • yu ('you')
  • hem ('him')
  • tu ('two')
  • tri ('three')
  • fala ('fellow')
  • ol ('all')

Using these words as building blocks, you can logically construct any of Bislama's 15 personal pronouns: for example, the third person dual ('the two of them') is tufala: 'two-fellow', and the second person trial ('the three of you') is yutrifala: 'you-three-fellow'.

singular dual trial plural
1st person inclusive mi
'you and me'
'the three of us (you too)'
'we (you too)'
exclusief mitufala
'the two of us (not you)'
'the three of us (not you)'
'we (not you)'
2nd person yu
'the two of you'
'the three of you'
'you guys'
3rd person hem
'he / she'
'the two of them'
'the two of them'

You will have noted that Bislama distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive 'we'. The exclusive forms are formed with mi, the inclusive forms contain yumi. So the Vanuatu national anthem sounds united "Yumi, yumi, yumi".