Tag Archives: plural

Louse-y old plurals

Today I needed to go to the Apotheke (“pharmacy, chemist or drug store”) in order to buy something to get rid of head lice – Kopfläuse – after finally realizing that they were what was making my head itch (this article helped me to figure out what to do). This got me pondering words where there is exclusive, or near exclusive use of either the singular or plural form. For instance, we rarely have reason to use the word louse in the singular when referring to the insect form. Contrariwise, you can’t really say about a group of disagreeable people that they are “lice,” the way you can use “a louse” to describe a single disagreeable person. (As an aside, “lice” is also interesting because it is an irregular English plural, although many lists include only its irregular sibling with a similar transformation: from singular “mouse” to plural “mice.”)

Canoo.net gives a list of four types of nouns that are normally only used in German in the singular:

Materialsdie Baumwolle, der Regen, das Kupfer – “cotton,” “rain” and “copper.” Sometimes plurals are formed from this type of word by adding a suffix – die Lederarten or die Tabaksorten, “the leathers” and “the tobaccos.”

Collectives: das Obst, das Gepäck – “fruit” and “luggage.” We can say “fruits” in English, however “luggage” exists only in the singular form as in German.

Abstractions: der Neid, die Kälte, das Glück – “envy,” “the cold,” and “luck.” “Envy” and “luck” appear only in the singular in English, as does “cold” when the meaning is a sort of weather/air temperature; one can talk about “colds” when the topic is a runny nose.

Proper names: (das) Amerika, der Rhein – “America” and “the Rhine” (river), the former can be used in the plural in English as in “potatoes are originally a food of the Americas” but this form is rare.

Canoo.net also offers a list of nouns found exclusively in the plural in German:
Place namesdie Azoren, die Pyrenäen and die USA – “the Azores” (island group), “the Pyrenees” (mountain group) and “the USA” (country name).

Groups of people: die Geschwister, die Leute – “the siblings” and “the people,” In English, we can say “sibling” and “people” is considered to be on of the plural form of “person” and is more commonly used than “persons.” German also has the word die Person which has the seldom used plural die Personen.

Collectives: die Kosten, die Fünfzigerjahre – “the expense, cost, expenditure” and the 1950s or “fifties.” The three translations of die Kosten are singular in English and have regular plural forms; decades appear only in the plural.

Diseasesdie Masern, die Pocken, die Röteln – “measles,” “smallpox,” “rubella.”  “Measles” serves as both the singular and the plural form; and “smallpox” and “rubella” exist only in the singular in English.

Otherdie Ferien, die Jeans – “vacation, holiday” and “jeans.” The former can be either singular or plural; the latter, like “glasses/spectacles” and “pants” appears only in the plural.

To end, here’s a poem (online source to see an English translation click here) that includes commentary on social class, friendly advice and a wish for deeper awareness of how we are seen by others – a wish that might not be shared by our conversation partners as we struggle to communicate with them in German!

To A Louse
by Robert Burns

[On seeing one on a lady’s bonnet, at church.]

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’ faith! I fear, ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How dare ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else, and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rils, snug an’ tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right
‘Till ye’ve got on it,
The vera tapmost, tow’ring height
O’ Miss’s bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump and grey as ony grozet;
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty doze o’t,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flannen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’s fine Lunardi! fie!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin’!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’!

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion!
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n devotion!

The Poetical Works Of Robert Burns
Copyright 1910
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd

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Is that an S I hear?

In English we tend to form our plurals with “s,” which sounds simple but needs a bit of explaining because while the letter “s” may appear, its pronunciation is governed by the final sound in the word.

We add an “s” and say plain old “s” /s/ when the word ends in the unvoiced (you don’t feel a vibration if you touch your throat while you say them) sounds /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ and the /th/ in “path.”

We add “s” but say it like “z” /z/ with the voiced (check your throat, you should feel vibrations) sounds /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/,  /l/, /m/, /n/, /ng/, /r/ or a vowel sound. (It would also apply to the /th/ in “writhe,” however I was unable to find a noun with this final sound as there is another phonological pattern in English where the noun forms of related words end in the unvoiced /th/ – “bath” and the verb forms end in a voiced /th/ – “bathe.”)

Finally, if the word ends in a sibilant  /s/, /z/ /ʃ/ as in “wish,” /tʃ/ as in “pitch,” /dʒ/ as in “ridge” or /ʒ/ as in “mirage,” we add an “es” and say either /iz/ or /uz/.

One way to test these rules for yourself is to make up non-words that end with sounds of each of the three types, and then create plurals. Try it with “•geck,” “•gring” and “•gitch.” You should find, in line with Jean Berko, that your pronunciations vary even though you’ve never had to form these plurals before.

As I learned to speak English before I could read or spell, the challenge was to associate multiple sounds with a single letter – “s.” Because I only began learning German as a literate adult, I can be confused by spelling patterns that map onto multiple sounds as the plural “s” does in English. At least I can take comfort that I not alone in this. Here is a small portion of a party invitation that one 7 year old boy sent to another:

Sak mir ob du kome konnst which I think is a rough sound-based rendering of Sag mir ob du kommen kannst “Tell me if you can come”

I hope after reading this you will say that you can come and enjoy the party here on Earthquake Words. Unfortunately, however, the blog will be on a short hiatus as I travel to Poland and will be “unplugged” for a week or so. I look forward to sharing more with you after my trip – tschüss and “bye for now.”


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Does that ring a bell?

Meet das Handy – the German word for “mobile phone” or “cell phone.” It’s a false friend. One that makes me shake my head. First of all, in English “handy” is an adjective and that das and the capital “H” indicate that the German Handy is a noun. This means it behaves like “candy” or “party,” neither of which make sense when broken down into “stem + y” the way an adjective with this form would (even if, as in the case of “hand + y,” the derivation feels a bit forced). The fact that it is a noun in German also means it has a plural form, in this case it is one on the ones that was affected by spelling reform (more on this in future posts) – previously, you could write die Handies but now you have to write die Handys.

Next, although we do have the word “handset” in the world of communication devices, the word  “handy” doesn’t bring to mind “handset” or even “hand held,” it brings to mind “useful” or “nice to have” or “convenient.” Yes, a phone that you can take with you is certainly “handy” but then so are so many things, for instance, the pocket tissues called “Handy-Andies.”

Finally, there is the issue of pronunciation. I want to say Handy the way I would say “handy” but that could get me looks almost as odd as if I asked for someone’s “*Handy number” in the US.  Das Handy is [ˈhɛndi] and “handy” is [ˈhændi]. Thank goodness that the stress is on the same syllable at least, which cannot be said for Psychologie and “psychology” or Autorin and “author,” both of which I regularly stumble over when I try to talk about my professional life in German.

Perhaps I should simply relax and take Handy as a back-handed compliment about the versatility of English?!

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