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Number
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Dutch nouns bear the grammatical feature number. This feature has two values, singular and plural. Number on nouns is an instance of inherent inflection. The singular is usually morphologically unmarked: the bare stem and the singular of most nouns have the same form. The plural is expressed by suffixation and/or stem alternation.

Table 1
Singular Plural
vrouwwoman.SGwoman vrouw-enwoman.PLwomen
kindchild.SGchild kind-erenchild.PLchildren
regelrule.SGrule regel-srule.PLrules
dogmadogma.SGdogma dogma-tadogma.PLdogmata
Nouns without a plural form are called singularia tantum: two examples are zeep soapand nageslacht offspring. The absence of a plural can often be explained on semantic grounds: many of these nouns denote uncountable entities. If the context forces such a noun to assume a count reading, plural forms can be made on the spot, though some may sound more artificial than others. By contrast, there are nouns that only occur in the plural; these are called pluralia tantum. With such pluralia tantum, it is generally impossible to fill in a missing singular form. (Read more on Singularia and pluralia tantum)

Plurals are most often formed by means of suffixation. There are several plural suffixes; two are productive: –s/s/ and –en/ə(n)/ (read more on non-productive plural suffixes here). -en is the most frequent plural suffix. The choice of the suffix depends on the stem of the noun (more on the choice between –en and –s can be found here).

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[+] Choice between plural suffixes

-en occurs on nouns ending in a stressed syllable, -s is preferred after an unstressed syllable. Put differently, the two suffixes are distributed in a way that creates a trochaic ending.


Table 2
Unstressed final syllable Stressed final syllable
kanoncanon - kanonscanons kanoncannon, gun - kanonnencannons, guns
kantoncanton - kantonscantons japondress - japonnendresses
hostiehost (Eucharist) - hostieshosts maniemania - manieënmanias

Read more here on the theoretical considerations with regard to the suffix choice.

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There are two ways of formulating the relevant generalization. The first might be "-en occurs after a stressed syllable, -s after an unstressed syllable". This is a condition on the input. Alternatively, one might say "A plural noun ends in a trochee". This is an output condition. The second analysis has advantages over the first. The strongest is that the distribution can be explained with recourse to the phonology of Dutch. Syllables of a Dutch word are preferably parsed into disyllabic left-headed feet, i.e. trochees. That is, both unparsed syllables and monosyllabic feet are less optimal than disyllabic feet. The choice in plural allomorphs conforms to this pattern, producing trochees by preference and avoiding unparsed syllables. In this way, the distribution is not only described, but also explained. A second advantage is that the analysis also accounts for nouns with two plural forms, one in -s and one in -n. Examples are:

Table 2
Singular Plural
bodemessenger bode-s/bode-nmessengers
kadequay kade-s/kade-nquays
ladedrawer lade-s/lade-ndrawers
methodemethod methode-s/methode-nmethods
As all of these nouns end in schwa, and as schwa is deleted before -en due to the phonological rule of prevocalic schwa-deletion (Booij 1995: 68), both plural forms have a trochaic ending and are therefore optimal forms. Note that in actual fact, the preferred choice is -s (Van Haeringen 1947), in particular in spoken language, although there are still a number of established plurals in -en. See also Trommelen (2007-2010) for a discussion of the hypothesis that -s is in fact the default plural suffix. Note also that loanwords may take a plural in -s although the result is not a trochee; examples are flatapartment, apartment building which takes the plural flats rather than the expected *flatten, and tramtramwhich becomes trams rather than *trammen. Interestingly, in Afrikaans, a daughter language of Dutch with strong creolization effects, nouns in /-ə/ systematically select -s: this systematization of plural suffix selection suggests that speakers of Dutch in South-Africa grasped the basic principle behind this selection, and were not influenced by the lexical conventions of the mother language.

[+] Non-productive plural suffixes

Non-productive plural forms are non-Germanic, with one exception: There is a set of fifteen nouns that has a plural form in -eren/ərən/. Sometimes this plural form exists alongside another, more regular plural, in which case there may be a difference in meaning.


Table 4
Singular Plural
beenleg, bone beenderenbones (benenlegs)
bladleaf, sheet, magazine bladerenleaves (bladensheets, magazines)
eiegg eiereneggs
gelidrank gelederenranks
gemoedmind gemoederenminds
goedcommodity goederengoods
hoenhen hoenderenhens, chickens, fowl
kalfcalf kalverencalves
kindchild kinderenchildren
kleedcloth, carpet klederenclothes (kledencarpets)
lamlamb lammerenlambs
liedsong liederensongs
radwheel raderenwheels
rundcow runderencattle
volkpeople volkerenpeoples

Historically, -eren is a sequence of two plural morphemes, -er and –en. Nowadays, the combination is often treated as a separate plural suffix. However, root+-er can also be analysed as a case of stem allomorphy (read more on this analysis). Similar issues arise with alternative plural forms used informally and in certain dialectal regions, such as forms with -ers (eiers eggs, hoenders chickens, kinders children, runderscattle).

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While the plural ending -eren is diachronically a double form consisting of the suffixes -er and -en, a question is whether it should be analysed as a special affix synchronically. An alternative analysis is that the relevant nouns form the plural on the basis of a special stem allomorph ending in /ər/. The main argument for this analytical choice is that the same stem allomorph also occurs in non-plural contexts, both within derivation and compounding, as the following examples illustrate: beender-lijmgelatineblader-deegpuff pastry, ont-bladerento defoliate, eier-dopeggshell, hoender-eihen’s egg,kalver-liefdepuppy love,kinder-wagenpram, kinder-lijkchildish, kinder-achtigchildish,kleder-drachttraditional dress,lammer-gierlammergeyer, bearded vulture,runder-lapbraising steak. Moreover, the stem allomorph kinder also occurs before the suffix –s since the plural noun kinders children is an existing (informal) variant of kinderen. If –eren is interpreted as a plural suffix, we would have to assume a fourth plural suffix –ers.

[+] Ablaut

Another Germanic non-productive procedure is a stem vowel change (ablaut) between singular and plural. In other cases, the stem vowel is lengthened.

Table 5
Singular Plural
stad/stɑt/town, city steden/stedən/
lid/lɪt/member leden/ledən/
gelegenheid/gəlegənhɛit/occasion, opportunity gelegenheden/gəlegənhedən/
dag/dɑx/day dagen/dagən/
god/xɔt/god goden/xodən/
Other sound changes between singular and plural forms involve regular phonological changes, such as prevocalic schwa-deletion in words such as gedacht-enthoughts (from singular gedachtethought) or the insertion of the semivowels /w/ or /j/ in order to break a hiatus; examples are zeeën[zeʲən]seas (from zee/ze/sea) or individuën[ɪndiʋidʏʷən]individuals (from individu/ɪndiʋidʏ/individual).

Non-productive non-native plurals enter the language as borrowed forms. Many nouns with such plurals have other, nativized plural forms which reflect their degree of integration into Dutch.

Table 6
Source language Singular Plural
Latin collegacolleague collegae, collegas
corpuscorpus corpora
doctorandusM.A. doctorandi, doctorandussen
matrixmatrix matrices, matrixen
museummuseum musea, museums
rectorrector rectores, rectors
tentamenexamination tentamina, tentamens
universaleuniversal universalia
Greek dogmadogma dogmata, dogma's
prolegomenonprolegomenon prolegomena
Italian portopostage porti
saldo(bank) balance saldi, saldo's

[+] Alternate plural suffixes

Two plural suffixes may occur side by side without a difference in meaning, as in aardappels/ aardappelen potatoesor methodes/ methoden methods. In other cases, there is a meaning difference between the alternate plural forms. Examples are:

Table 7
Singular Plural
beenleg, bone beenderenbones(benenlegs)
bladleaf, sheet, magazine bladerenleaves(bladensheets, magazines)
kleedcloth, carpet klederenclothes(kledencarpets

Homonyms share a singular, but often not a plural form. Examples:

Table 8
Singular Plural
padpath paden
padtoad padden
portierdoorkeeper portiers
portierdoor (of a car) portieren
balball (in sports), testicle ballen
balball (dance) bals

[+] Other plurals

Some nouns do not have a regular plural form. Instead, speakers use the plural of a different word with a related meaning. This is a case of suppletion. Examples are compounds with –manman as head (koopman merchant, zeeman sailor, zakenman businessman). Besides the expected plurals koopmannen, zeemannen and zakenmannen, these often get a suppletive plural in –liedenor –luipeople. Other examples are:

Table 9
Singular Plural
aanbodoffer aanbiedingen
belegsiege belegeringen
dankthanks dankbetuigingen
lofpraise loftuitingen, lofbetuigingen
raadadvice raadgevingen

[+] Pluralizing complex words

When a compound is pluralized, the plural marker is selected for and attached to the rightmost element, the head of the compound (Right-Hand Head Rule). This process is clearest with irregular plural forms: hoofdstedencapitals inherits the plural of stedencities. Exceptions are copulative compounds such as collega-Germanistcolleague (and) Germanist, where both parts can be pluralized (collegas-Germanisten). Also, N-A combinations sometimes mark the plural on the left-hand part, as in proces-verbaalpolice report which becomes  processen-verbaal. Such structures can be considered left-headed.

[+] Plurals as input for derivation

Normally, the plural suffix constitutes the last – or outer – element in a word. This is in line with the universal tendency that inflection is peripheral to derivation. However, plurals can serve as input for compounding. Examples are goed-eren-treinfreight train and kalv-eren-marktcalf market. A complication is that Dutch has linking elements in compounds which may look like plural suffixes, as in boekenleggerboek-en-leggerbookmark. Experimental research has shown that these elements can indeed be interpreted as plural markers by speakers; see e.g. Schreuder (1998) and Hanssen et al. (2013). Only irregular plural forms furnish truly unambiguous cases.

References:
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Haeringen, Coenraad B. van1947De meervoudsvorming in het NederlandsMededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen, Afdeling Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks10131-156
  • Hanssen, Esther, Banga, Arina, Schreuder, Robert & Neijt, Anneke2013Semantic and prosodic effects of Dutch linking elementsMorphology237-32
  • Schreuder, Robert, Neijt, Anneke, Weide, Femke van der & Baayen, R. Harald1998Regular plurals in Dutch compounds: Linking graphemes or morphemes?Language and Cognitive Processes13551--573
  • Trommelen, Mieke2010Evidentie voor -s als 'default'-meervoud in het NederlandsLeuvense Bijdragen96151-167
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