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:
Materials: die 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 names: die 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.
Diseases: die 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.
Other: die 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,
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
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd