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Plural formation of nouns ending in vowels and sonorant consonants

Afrikaans nouns, like other Germanic languages, bear the grammatical feature number, viz. singular (SG) and plural (PL). While the singular is usually morphologically unmarked, the plural is normally expressed by suffixation, mostly by adding either the plural morpheme -e or -s to the stem. We limit the description here to monomorphemic nouns, but note that the same principles of plural formation apply to compound nouns, in which case the structure of the final component is relevant. Derivations function somewhat differently, as will be shown where applicable. See Wissing (2017) and references in this work for more.


A small number of irregular and unproductive plural morphemes exist, and some nouns do not take a plural morpheme, while others have double plural forms Broadly-speaking, plural formation is morphonemically determined by three factors: the number of syllables of the noun stem, the metrical structure of the resulting plural form of the noun and the phoneme class of the final segment. With respect to the later, much depends on whether the noun ends on an obstruent consonant (cf. Plural formation of nouns ending on obstruents, or whether it ends on a sonorant segment i.e. a vowel, diphthong or sonorant consonant. Afrikaans monomorphemic nouns ending on a sonorant segment will have as plural morpheme -e (phonetically /ə/) or an -s in all other cases. The choice of -e or -s depends very much on the need for plural forms to adhere optimally to the metrical foot structure   /( ̶ ) / ⋃/ (optional syllable + stressed syllable + unstressed syllable), as in the following examples, where both the singular and the plural forms have the optimal pattern // ⋃/. In all cases, the metrical pattern // ⋃/ is either retained by adding -s, or created by adding-e to the singular form:

  1. Vowels in word-final position:
    1. Unstressed syllable: fobie phobiaSG /'fo.bi/ PL /'fo.bis/
    2. Stressed syllable: fobie phobia SG /fo.'bi/ PL /fo.'bi.ə/
  2. Diphthongs in word-final position:
    1. Stressed syllable: vallei valley SG /fɑ.'ləi/ PL /fɑ.'ləi.ə/
  3. Sonorant consonants as coda:
    1. Unstressed syllable: appel apple SG /'ɑ.pəl/ PL /'ɑ.pəls/
    2. Stressed syllable: appél appeal SG /ɑ.'pɛl/ PL /ɑ.'pɛ.lə/

In the next section, the plural formation of these three basic categories of noun will be dealt with in more detail, first regarding monosyllabic nouns and then in relation to polysyllabic nouns.

[+]Monosyllabic nouns ending on vowels

Only a small number of nouns of this type exists in Afrikaans. The following lists, all with -e as plural suffix, are basically complete:

Ending on ie /i/; PLdrieë < SGdrie try, PLknieë < SGknie knee.

Ending on ee /e/; PLfeë < SGfee fairy, PLreë < SGree roe, PLseë < SGsee sea, PLsneë < SGsnee cut, PLsleë < SGslee sledge, PLtreë < SGtree stride.

Ending on eu /ø/; PLkeue < SGkeu biljard stick.

In all of these instances the preferred metrical pattern // ⋃/ is created by the addition of -e. A small number of nouns that end on a exists with -s in the plural: bra /bra/ bra, pa /pa/ father, ma /ma/ mother, and spa /spa/ spa. They should be considered exceptions to this regularity.

[+]Monosyllabic nouns ending on diphthongs

A restricted number of monosyllabic nouns is to be found that end in diphthongs, for example:

Ending on eeu /eu/; PLeeue < SGeeu century.

Ending on ooi /oi/; PLooie < SGooi ewe.

Ending on aai /ai/; PLkraaie < SGkraai crow.

Other nouns of this kind, all taking -e as plural, are: leeu and skreeu; fooi; gooi; kooi; nooi; plooi; prooi; sooi; strooi; vlooi; baai; braai; draai; haai; kaai; kraai; laai; raai; swaai.

Note that leeus, plural of leeu lion is an exception in this regard.

[+]Polysyllabic nouns ending on vowels

Commonly, all polysyllabic nouns follow the same trochaic pattern as in the above mentioned plural cases, viz.  /( ̶ ) / ⋃/. Consider the following situation: The noun orgie orgy has two possible plural forms: 'orgies ( /'ɔr.xis/SGorgie orgy) as well as or'gieë ( /ɔr.'xi.ə/). Both plurals forms have a trochaic pattern. As is evident here, the plural morpheme -s is applied in cases where final ie is unstressed, thus retaining the pattern /(-) / ∪/, given that the consonant -s does not create an extra syllable.

This regularity is evident in the following lists of nouns with two types of stress patterns in their singular form. In the case of PL. s the default metrical pattern /( ̶ ) / ⋃/ is retained; with the addition of PL. /e/ the metrical pattern is created.

Plurals of nouns ending on final ie /i/ thus serve as a clear case of either retention or creation of the preferred trochaic pattern.

Table 1: Final and prefinal stress
Stress on prefinal syllable PL. s Stress on final syllable PL. e
administrasie allergie
blokkasie amfibie
demonstrasie anomalie
ekspedisie bibliografie
fluktuasie ekonomie
globalisasie industrie
hipertensie patologie
implementasie kategorie
likwidasie kopie
manifestasie metodologie
naturalisasie strategie
observasie monopolie
proklamasie sinergie
registrasie tapisserie
seremonie tegnologie
transformasie teorie
ventilasie vasektomie

  1. A substantial number of words formed by the addition of the compound suffix -ologie -ology, as in geologie geology or psigologie psychology always have stress on the final -ie. In line with the trochaic pattern their plurals are thus formed by adding the unstressable schwa as suffix, thus creating the default pattern /(-) / ∪/, therefore psigologieë and geologieë.

[+]Polysyllabic nouns ending on /u/ ( -oe) /ə/ ( -e) /ɑ/ ( a)

Short vowels are not normally stressed in final position in open syllables; when occuring in final position in polysyllabic nouns they thus have s as plural form, with no extra final syllable being created. The plural form thus consequently obeys the preferred metrical pattern // ⋃/, with penultimate stress, as in every one of the following examples:

Table 2: Short unstressed final vowels with plural <s>
/u/ /ɑ/ /ə/
avokado baba bate
boendoe drama dame
emoe ekstra fase
ghoeroe firma gade
koedoe gala helfte
taptoe kobra leuse
voedoe lapa pouse
Zoeloe mamba rede
eggo nota skande
foto ouma sekonde
kommando padda tirade
libretto sebra analise
mango tema diagnose
saldo arena eufemisme
tornado banana hipotese
veto diploma limonade
gorilla kaskenade
hiëna piramide
impala seremade

[+]Polysyllabic nouns ending on long vowels /e/, /a/, /o/ and /ø/

Such nouns ending on open syllables with stressed long vowels as nuclei are scarce, and, contrary to the default metrical pattern, have s as plural: ateljee; diarree; dinee; idee; komitee; moskee; sjimpansee; trogee; trustee; hoera; karba; buro; chateau; kado; plato; tablo; milieu. Aalwees, plural of aalwee, with penultimate stress, retains the general system of // ∪/, while the plural forms skaduwees < skaduwee and weduwees < weduwee, optimally adhere to the preferred pattern by not adding an unstressed final syllable my means of a schwa plural morpheme.

[+]Polysyllabic nouns ending on diphthongs

Nouns with final diphthongs in polysyllabic nouns are limited in Afrikaans.Nouns ending with the diphthongs /əi/ (spelled as either y or ei) and /œu/ ( ou) are as follows: galery; kontrei; maatskappy; party; pastei; redery; spesery; turksvy; vallei; juffrou; kabeljou; mevrou.

The few nouns of this class behave similarly to the monosyllabic equivalent mentioned above i.e. they end in -e. With respect to the other diphthongs there is only oktrooi, konvooi, pleidooi and toernooi, and assegaai, bohaai, lawaai and papegaai, all adhering to the default metric pattern /(-) / ∪/ in their plural forms. No instances with -eeu have been detected.

[+]Nouns with sonorant consonants as coda

Such nouns behave distinctly more in line with the general metrical pattern exhibited thus far than is the case with the other main type, viz. words having nonsonorant consonants (plosives and fricatives) as coda constituent.

Consider the words karnival /kɑr.nɑ.fɑl/ carnival and argipel /ɑr.xi.pɛl/ archipelago. Both have two possible stress placements, viz. initial and final primary stress. When the initial syllable is stressed, the plural morpheme is -s, rendering the pattern // ⋃ ⋃/, and by doing so minimizing the number of unstressed positions to two. In the case of stress lying on the final syllable, by adding -e as plural morpheme, the default metrical pattern is retained.

A number of near minimal-pairs demonstrate the importance of stress placement on plural formation: PL. appels /'ɑ.pəls/ < SG. appel /'ɑ.pəl/ apple vs. PL. appelle /ɑ.'pɛ.lə/ < SG. appél /ɑ.'pɛl/ appeal; PL. kanons /'ka.nɔns/ < SG. kanon /'ka.nɔn/ song vs. PL. kanonne /kɑ.'nɔ.nə/ < SG. kanon /kɑ.'nɔn/ cannon. In each and every case the choice of plural morpheme retains the preferred metrical pattern // ⋃/. More examples are PL. items /'i.tɛms/ < SG. item /'i.tɛm/ item vs. PL. mahemme /mɑ.'hɛ.mə/ < SG. mahem /mɑ.'hɛm/ type of bird.

The following lists of words with sonorant codas further illustrate the importance of stress placement for plural formation i.e. by comparing words with identical final syllables with and without stress, and, associated with that, different plural suffixes.

Table 3: Stress placement in plural formation: Final stress
Singular Orthographic Singula Phonemic Singula Gloss Plural Orthographic Plural Phonemic Plural Gloss
kanon [kɑ.'nͻn] cannon kanonne [kɑ.'nͻnnə] cannons
mahem [mɑ.'ɦɛm] bird mahemme [mɑ.'ɦɛ.mə] birds
forel [fo.'rɛl] trout forelle [fo.'rɛ.lə] no pl.
rivier [rə.'fir] river riviere [rə.'fi.rə] rivers
belang [bə.'lɑɳ] interest belange [bə.'lɑ.ɳə] interests

Table 4: Stress placement in plural formation: Non-final stress
Singular Orthographic Singular Phonemic Singular Gloss Plural Orthographic Plural Phonemic Plural Gloss
kanon ['ka.nͻn] song kanons ['ka.nͻns] songs
item ['i.tɛm] item items ['i.tɛms] items
orrel ['ͻ.rəl] organ orrels ['ͻ.rəls] organs
dokter ['dͻk.tər] doctor dokters ['dͻk.tərs] doctors
sarong ['sa.rͻɳ] garment sarongs ['sa.rͻɳs] garments

  1. All these nouns have the ideal metrical pattern // ⋃/ in the plural form.
  2. Double sonorant consonants nn, mm, ll are purely spelling conventions and indicate that the preceding vowel is short.
  3. kanon is the spelling for both /kɑ.'nɔn/ cannon and /'ka.nɔn/ song. Context is thus needed for disambiguation.

[+]Final syllables with a short vowel as nucleus

Monosyllabic nouns of this type generally have schwa, -e, as plural suffix, therby creating the default metrical structure // ∪/, as previously shown in other types of noun. This applies to words with a sonornant consonant as coda and with all types of preceding nuclei i.e. short and long vowels as well as diphthongs. Examples include bel, blom, dam, kam, lem, non, pen, rang, sel, skil, son, tang and wang as well as a large number of others, all of which receive -e, as plural suffix. mans men (PL of man) and ooms men (PL of oom), as well as tooms bridles (PL of toom) are rare exceptions.

In the following last sections the focus turns to plural formation in polysyllabic nouns, where it is again shown that the default // ∪/ is to a significant degree either created (in A.) or retained (in B.).

[+]A. Final stress: -e plural:

o [ɔ]: baron; balkon; gallon; karton; kolom; kokon.

e [ɛ]: appel; bakatel; forel; frikkadel; gravamen; hotel; kapel; kartel; kokkerel; lapel; model; motel; naturel; omen; perron; sitadel; skalpel.

i [ə]: affodil; April; basil; geskil; kodisil; krokodil; pastil; verskil.

oe [u]: fatsoen; festoen; galjoen; garnisoen; griffioen; kankoen; kampioen; legioen; lemoen; pampoen; pawiljoen; pensioen; perlemoen; seisoen; sitroen; spioen; visioen and pandoer*; tamboer; karakoel; spanjoel.

ie [i]: outomobiel*; reptiel; ventiel; imbesiel; profiel; projektiel; reptiel; akroniem; ensiem; pseudoniem; septiem; sinoniem; aspirien; kantien; masjien; vitamien; angelier; barbier*; brigadier; kanselier; kavalier; koerier; offisier*; papier; populier; skarnier.

Note: * indicates nouns with double plurals (-e as well as -s).

[+]B. Nonfinal stress: -s plural:

In accordance with the general noun formation principle, bisyllabic nouns with a sonorant consonant as coda and that, in addition, do not have final stress have -s as plural morpheme. Examples are: Boesman; ghantang; kaftan; katjang; mustang; pienang; piesang; rottang; satan; sultan; tartan; tripang. Multisyllabic nouns with antepenultimate stress avoid another unstressed syllable in their plurals by choosing -s instead of -e, as in bariton , kameleon, leksikon, oksimoron, rododendron and stadion (all with the short /ɔ/), and boemerang, oerang-oetang and talisman (with short /ɑ/).

[+]Long vowels in closed final syllable

Word-final syllables with long vowels as nuclei in monomorphemes generally carry main stress (see Long vowels in monomorphemes). Such words almost always have -e as plural morpheme, thereby retaining the optimal pattern // ⋃/. The following are some examples of such monomorphemic nouns:

aa /a/bobbejaan; dekaan; karavaan; likkewaan; orgaan; sopraan; veteraan; vulkaan; beswaar; eksemplaar; gevaar; hektaar; kitaar; pilaar; sigaar; seminaar; filiaal; garnaal; hospitaal; ideaal; joernaal; kanaal; lokaal; materiaal; onthaal; pedaal; signaal; terminaal; vandaal.

oo /o/: hormoon; mikrofoon; patroon; persoon; telefoon; gehoor; kantoor; verhoor; metropool; simbool; atoom; ekonoom; idioom; kondoom; risoom; simptoom.

ee /e/: skoorsteen; embleem; probleem; sisteem; geweer; kameel; paneel; perseel; sambreel; toneel; voordeel.

Note: some of these nouns have double plural morphemes, viz. kitaar and geweer. In general, the tendency is for the forms with -e to prevail i.e. in line with the normal plural formation strategy.

eu /ø/: debiteur; direkteur; eksekuteur; monteur; krediteur have normal -e as plural, while amateur; monteur; operateur; outeur; redakteur, like some derivations with -teur, have -s, which is contrary to the general pattern.

  • Wissing, Daan2017FonologieVan Schaik
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