Plural Formation in English and German

A Contrastive Analysis

Term Paper, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Previous Literature

3. Data and Methodology
3.1. Plural Formation German
3.1.1. Five Basic Types
3.1.2. Irregular Plurals
3.1.3 Borrowings
3.2. Plural Formation English
3.2.1. Plural Formation with -s
3.2.2. Irregularities

4. Contrastive Synopsis
4.1. Similarities
4.2. Differences

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

Plural formation could be so easy, if it was as simple as in George Orwell’s Nine­teen Eighty – Four. In this novel, the suffix -s forms the plural with every noun in the singular. Thus, man simply becomes *mans (cf. Carstairs McCarthy 2002: 32). Of course, the process of plural formation is much more complicated. Therefore, this term paper will at first analyze the building of the plural in the two languages German and English, and afterwards discuss their similarities and differences.

The plural formation of nouns is a part of the inflectional morphology in general. This study plays an important role in all languages. It helps us to form our expres­sions of the linguistic environment and their better description for ourselves and others. We can convey the number of things or people we talk about more precisely by understanding the process of plural formation (cf. König and Gast 2018: 56, Schmid: 2016: 51).

This term paper asks for the differences and similarities of plural formation in German and English. Therefore, I will at first present some previous literature to get an overview on the empirical state. Afterwards, the data and methodology will be discussed; this part is separated in the German and English plural formation. Both parts will analyze the regularities and irregularities of the formation process of their plural nouns. The contrastive synopsis will explain the similarities, as well as the differences of both languages. At last, I will recap the term paper’s results in a concise conclusion.

2. Previous Literature

Plenty of literature can be found on the topic of inflectional morphology in general, but also on the more precise subject of plural formation of nouns, in German as well as in English. Peter Eisenberg‘s Das Wort. Grundriss der deutschen Grammatik or Deutsche Grammatik und Wortbildung in 125 Fragen und Antworten by Hans Jür-gen Heringer give a good overview in German linguistics in general, but also in the process of plural formation of nouns.

Hans – Jörg Schmid’s English morphology and word – formation and Lilo Moess-ner’s Diachronic English Linguisitcs. An Introduction, on the other hand exhibit the English linguistics very generally as well, but also focus on the plural formation.

Both languages are contrasted in Ekkehard König’s and Volker Gast’s book Un­derstanding English – German Contrasts, also by covering many linguistic issues of both languages and the topic of forming the plural.

3. Data and Methodology

3.1. Plural Formation German

The German language has a complex plural system; it has a high number of allo-morphs, uses a systematic stem alternation and has a complex conditioning by com­bining gender with formal principles. The plural formation in German primarily is a combination of gender and an unstressed syllable as output. The latter can be achieved by a complementary distribution of syllabic suffixes with a final stressed singular, in comparison to an unstressed, or a zero – marking with a singular with schwa – containing unstressed syllable. Case distinction has been weakened on sub­stantives, only the dative is marked in the plural, and only in strong classes (cf. Dammel et al. 2010: 600, Eisenberg 2013: 157).

In German every noun, in most cases, builds a singular and a plural. The types of plural formation are distinguished in their endings. In some cases, an umlaut (change of vowel in the word stem) is added. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell which plural ending a noun needs by looking at the word stem (cf. Heringer 2014: 67).

For a better overview, the different plural markers have been arranged in five basic types by regarding the process of the so – called ‘schwa – deletion’: if the last syllable of a word contains schwa (e.g. die Ampel), there is never an additional schwa in the ending (die Ampeln, not die *Ampe-len). (König and Gast 2018: 58)

Thus, a regular pattern of the plural formation could be prepared and analyzed. At first, a figure will show the five different plural markers that are distinguished in this paper and these will be explained afterwards. Accordingly, irregular plurals and foreign words will be discussed and analyzed.

3.1.1. Five Basic Types

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: The five different types of plural formation in German (based on König and Gast forthc.: 58)

Plural formation with –(e)n

The gender controls the choice of the supplemental allomorph within the plural of a reductive syllable, with the fundamental break: plus, or minus feminine. There­fore, feminine nouns systematically have generalized the weak (e)n – plural, also with substantives with schwa + sonorant; and that is a deviation from masculine and neuter in the same structure. For the neuter, the allomorph –(e)n is very rare, for the masculine, it is only valid within a certain exception class (cf. Dammel et al. 2010: 601, Eisenberg 2013: 155).

Nouns which end with -e, mostly feminine ones, form the plural with -n (e.g.: die Sache – die Sachen). Some of these nouns insert e, for phonetic reasons (e.g.: die Frau – die Frauen) (cf. Heringer 2014: 67).

Plural formation with -e

This type is usually found with masculine and neuter nouns, they form the suffix -e with a final stressed singular. This class is rarely formed with feminine nouns (e.g.: der Weg – die Wege). The ending -e is absent after a noun in the singular ends with schwa + sonorant (e.g.: das Pendel – die Pendel). Some of the nouns in this group therefore do not have a plural ending (e.g.: der Winter – die Winter), but some change the vowel in an umlaut, if possible (e.g.: der Vater – die Väter). There are no feminine nouns with zero – marking (cf. Heringer 2014: 67 – 68, Dammel et al. 2010: 601, Eisenberg 2013: 153).

Plural formation with umlaut (-e)

These nouns form an umlaut in the plural. This plural formation works like the formation with -e, but plus an umlaut (e.g.: der Sohn – die Söhne) (cf. Heringer 2014: 68, König and Gast 2018: 58).

Plural formation with (umlaut) -er

Not many nouns form their plural with -er, but they appear very often (e.g.: das Kind – die Kinder). The plural changes into an umlaut, if possible (e.g.: das Tal – die Täler). The plural with -er does not exist with feminine nouns (cf. Heringer 2014: 68).

Plural formation with -s

The allomorph -s has no gender specification and keeps the phonological structure of the basis constant towards the plural of the reductive syllable; that means, it does not lead to a truncation and it does not remove the final – obstruent devoicing (cf. Dammel et al. 2010: 602).

The plural with -s appears very often. It is competent for all unusual cases. Ab­breviations (e.g.: der LKW – die LKWs) and foreign words, which end with a con­sonant in the singular (e.g.: die Ralley – die Ralleys), form their plural with an -s (cf. Heringer 2014: 69).

3.1.2. Irregular Plurals

In the German language, not all nouns are used in both, singular and plural. That has mostly semantic reasons. Sometimes the plural is not useful, sometimes the singular is not useful (cf. Heringer 2014: 70).

No singular/ no plural

Abstract nouns do not form a plural (e.g.: das Alter, das Chaos), nouns, which can­not be counted (die Butter, das Chlor), verbs and adjectives, that can be formed into nouns (das Denken, das Gelb), collective nouns (der Adel, das Gemüse), as well as unique words (die Mona Lisa, das Weltall) (cf. Heringer 2014: 70).

Names of islands and mountains, diseases, specific groups of people and holidays do not form a plural. There are also some nouns that do not exist in singular, which cannot be grouped (e.g.: die Ferien, die Kosten, die Lebensmittel, etc.) (cf. Heringer 2014: 70).

3.1.3 Borrowings

Foreign words often bring their plural from their original language, but sometimes people just do not know the foreign plural and form it differently, often with the suffix -s. Mostly, both plural formations are accepted (e.g.: das Album – die Alben/ die Albums, Atlas – die Atlanten/ die Atlasse, Solo – die Soli, die Solos). A lot of them are borrowed from Greek (e.g.: die Dramen) or Latin (e.g.: die Kasus) (cf. Heringer 2014: 71).

3.2. Plural Formation English

The English language is poor in their inflection of nouns and much more uniform than the German language. The vast majority takes the -s suffix, other plural mark­ers only show up with a small number of nouns and can be regarded as irregular (cf. König and Gast 2018: 62 – 63). Furthermore, in the English language nouns only grammatically distinguish in singular and plural1, and that is expressed morpholog­ically (cf. Carstairs McCarthy 2002: 37).

At first, the mostly used plural suffix -s will be discussed and afterwards the ir­regularities in the English plural formation, borrowings, vowel gradation and zero – marking, will be analyzed.

3.2.1. Plural Formation with -s

The regular method of forming plurals in the English language is adding the suffix -s to a singular noun, unless otherwise stated (cf. Carstairs McCarthy 2002: 31). But there are three different allomorphs of the suffix -s: [iz], [z] and [s]. After stem – final sibilants, the appropriate allomorph is [iz] (e.g.: bus – busses, rose – roses). After other stem – final voiced phonemes, it is [z] (e.g.: dog -dogs, game – games). After other stem – final voiceless phonemes it is [s] (e.g.: cat – cats, lip – lips). But there are also some irregularities, for example the noun wolf. If we apply the rule explained above, we will get the incorrect form /wulfs/, instead of the correct form /wulvz/ (cf. Moessner 2003: 19, König and Gast 2018: 63, Schmid 2016: 52).


1 It is disputed whether one can still speak of case differentiation in English (cf. König and Gast 2018: 62 – 63).

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Plural Formation in English and German
A Contrastive Analysis
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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analysis, contrastive, english, formation, german, plural
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Jennifer Franz (Author), 2020, Plural Formation in English and German, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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