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USAGE: German noun plurals

From:John Cowan <cowan@...>
Date:Saturday, August 11, 2001, 3:44
The following is rewritten from Pinker, _Words and Rules_,
ISBN 0-465-07269-0 (paperback), pp. 221-227:

German has 8 types of plurals:

zero            Daumen  Daumen          'thumb'
umlaut          Mutter  Muetter         'mother'
-e              Hund    Hunde           'dog'
-e with umlaut  Kuh     Kuehe           'cow'
-er             Kind    Kinder          'child'
-er with umlaut Wald    Waelder         'forest'
-en             Strasse Strassen        'street'
-s              Auto    Autos           'car'

Nobody has been able to find any rules for these: one attempt had ten
rules and 17 lists of exceptions.  Suffixed nouns do have systematic
plurals: -e, -schaft, -keit, -ung all take -en.  Arguably this is
because the suffix is functioning as a head here, with its specific
plural ending.

"Wiese and Wunderlich argue that 7 of the 8 classes are simply
irregular.  The reason that nouns with certain sounds get certain
plurals is not that rules have put them there, but rather that
irregular forms are stored in an associative memory, which makes
families of similar forms easier to remember and encourages people
to analogize the plural of one noun to a similar-sounding noun."

-s is the rarest plural (only Autos and Hobbys of 200 most common
nouns; only 4% of 25,000 nouns).  But it is regular: the
*Notpluralendung* (emergency plural ending).  "It serves as the
default, acting whenever memory retrieval comes up empty-handed."

Typical cases: borrowings (Cafes, Kiosks), proper nouns
(Thomas Manns, Fausts), quotations (drei "Mann"s), conversions
(Wenns und Abers 'ifs and buts'), acronyms (GmbHs, Sozis, Nazis).

The other plural types can appear in the left part of a compound:
Professor*en*kraenzchen, Frau*en*laden, Schwein*e*stall,
Gaens*e*braten, Buech*er*regal, Sozialist*en*treffen, like
English "teethmarks" and "mice-infested".  But Sozi*s*treffen
and Auto*s*berg are impossible, like "clawsmarks" and "rats-infested".

Experiment: ask for ratings of the 8 possible plural forms of
invented nouns, including those that sound like existing forms
(Pund) and those that don't (Fnoehk, Proeng, Plaupf).
Use them in various contexts.

Sample sentence, ordinary noun:

Ich habe einen gruenen Kach gegen meine Erkaeltung genommen.
Aber die weissen {Kach,Kaech,Kache,Kaeche,Kachen,Kacher,Kaecher,Kachs}
sind oft billiger und helfen auch besser.

(Trans: I have taken a green kach for my cold.  But the white kachs
are often cheaper and work better.)

Prediction: Choice should depend on similarities in sound.

Sample sentence, proper name:

Mein Freund Hans Kach und seine Frau Helga Kach sind ein bisschen komisch.
Die {Kach,Kaech,...Kachs} versuchen immer, ihre Schuhe anzuziehen, bevor
sie die Socken anhaben.

(Trans: My friend Hans K. and his wife Helga K. are a bit peculiar.
The Kachs always try to put on their shoes before they put on their socks.)

Prediction: Always use regular -s plural.

Sample sentence, Fremdwort:

Die franzoesische "Kach" sieht schwarz am besten aus.  Aber eigentlich
sehen {Kach,Kaech,...Kachs} in jeder Farbe gut aus.

(Trans: The French "kach" looks best in black.  But actually kachs
look good in any color.)

Prediction: Usually use regular -s plural, with some dilution when the
word resembles an existing German word.

All outcomes as predicted: for ordinary nouns, speakers made analogies
based on rhyme or other similarities, using -s if there were none;
proper names took -s; foreign words more often took -s than
ordinary ones, but strong analogies induced other plurals.

"So -s really is different from the other 7 plural forms.  The others
are irregular, and can be generalized only by analogy to roots.
The -s is regular, and is used as the default, in all the
'emergencies' in which memory and analogy fail: unassimilable
borrowings, names, acronyms, truncations, phrases, and quotations.
These emergencies may strike you as a motley collection of exotic
constructions, but that is exactly the point.  The heterogeneity
of the constructions, and people's ability to apply the regular
suffix to them the first time they are faced with the choice,
show that people do not have to be trained to associate the suffix
with each construction separately -- the constructions need only
be given the mental label 'noun'.  And the power of -s to serve
as a default even though it is rare among words shows that
regularity cannot depend [as the high frequency of English -s
would suggest] on a pattern begin stamped into a person's mind
through exposure to a large number of regular words.  Regularity
comes instead from the mind's ability to acquire symbolic rules,
operations that apply fully to any instance of a category."

From p. 229:

OE had 9 plural categories, including -as, the ancestor of todays
-s.  When final vowels became schwa in ME, all plural endings
died except -es and -en.  -s prevailed because it was
audible, worked after both vowels and consonants, and
was also used in the numerous French words imported at that
time.  ME speakers merged English -es and French -s to
create a universal regular suffix.

German -s arrived much later: not present in OHG or MHG.
Low German, Dutch, English, and French borrowings introduced
it in the 18th century.  By the 19th c., speakers generalized
it to all borrowings and indeclinables.  Prescriptive
grammarians called -s "strange" and "ignorant" and urged
people to avoid it, with the usual null results.

"The difference between the number of regular plurals in English
and in German is simply a difference in how long the -s has
been around in the two languages snatching up the new headless
or rootless nouns."

John Cowan                         
One art/there is/no less/no more/All things/to do/with sparks/galore
        --Douglas Hofstadter