Little Odds & Ends About the “Plurale Tantum” in the Russian Language
When teaching yourself a language, sometimes it helps to a do a little organizing, DIY style.
First of all, let me first start off with a definition:
A plurale tantum (Latin for "plural only", plural form: pluralia tantum) is a noun that appears only in the plural form and does not have a singular variant for referring to a single object. In a less strict usage of the term, it can also refer to nouns whose singular form is rarely used.
Source: Wikipedia’s entry for “Plurale tantum”
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t ever thought much about pluralia tantum, in my own native language or in others. It’s one of those things that you just kind of learn about indirectly as you learn a language (especially your first language). My attention was called to it, however, when I read the following in a Duolingo discussion thread:
Is "люди" a third declension noun when "человек" is first declension? How can one tell that its genitive plural should be "людей" and not "люд" or "людов"?
From “На улице нет люлей.” (There are no people on the street.)
I should mention that I haven’t really studied the Russian language much via the prism of declension categories. In the formal Russian language classes I have had, at university and elsewhere, these declension categories were not covered and I have not pursued the study of them on my own. Nevertheless, I thought my experience as a student of Russian rather than a native speaker of it might be helpful to the Duolingo user who wrote the question above, so I set out to try to answer it. When I realized that my comment had grown rather large for the discussion thread, I decided to develop it more fully and turn it into an article that could be posted here. If nothing else, I hope this serves to give the topic greater exposure because I think there are some things that I include here that would be helpful to the beginning student of Russian. My response to this user is below:
I am not a native speaker, nor am I all that familiar with the declension categories you refer to, but I'm assuming you are referring to something similar to what I found at this link here:
That said, the noun categories described at the page you can link to with the link above appear to be addressing just singular forms of nouns and not plural. Do you (or anyone else) know of a resource that categorizes noun declensions by plural noun forms?
I'm going to post this question over at the Russian StackExchange to see if I can get an answer. My knowledge of Russian isn't extensive enough to know whether or not one could reasonably develop any rules or patterns off of nouns that are found in plural form only. Most of the rules I've seen on how to form the genitive plural are based off of what its singular nominative form is. Regardless, I'll post the question and you can link to the question with the link below:
Note: Last I checked two native/fluent speakers of Russian (presumably) took the time to write a couple of really good answers in response to the question I posted. If you are a beginning student of Russian, I think you’ll get some value out of reading them both, so I do recommend visiting the link above.
A language experiment of sorts
Whether you check out the link above or not, I'm going to add something that I haven't read or seen anywhere and it may seem a bit unorthodox, but just for the sake of argument, let's pretend that we don't already know that "люди" is found in plural form only. Furthermore, let's say we don't have access to Google or a dictionary or anything else that can confirm this for us, so we've got to make an educated guess and we assume that "и" is the ending for the singular "людь" (мягкий знак added since the hard consonant "д" would normally be followed by an "ы" in the plural).
Now I realize some might find this reasoning ridiculous because there's no such word as "людь" in Russian (or any other language), but a lot of times declensional endings in various languages are orthographical representations of the way words are pronounced and many times this is some form of extension of a soft sound or a hard sound. In other words, suffixes often follow some sort of pattern that facilitates the elision of sound and makes pronunciation of the word easier.
After writing the above, I did learn that the word "люд" is a word in Russian, but its declension follows an irregular pattern. However, it is not the singular of "люди"; it, too, is a noun found in plural form only.
If you turn to conventional rules for forming the genitive plural (by conventional I mean those I found in a Russian textbook), words that end in "ь" end in "ей" for genitive plural. You can find these rules laid out in a textbook called ТРОЙКА, pp. 482-483.
If you can’t link to those pages, below is a chart of the simplified rule which breaks down the rules simply by the ending of the stem, regardless of the noun’s gender (you’ll find this on p. 483 of ТРОЙКА but without the images I added to it).
If you want a page that is a bit more easily accessible, visit the link below:
About halfway down the page it devotes a rather large section to the genitive plural and it appears to mirror what is taught in ТРОЙКА.
The whole point of all of this is to point out that, by looking at the stem of “люди,” you can figure out that it is “людей” in genitive plural. The thing is, this doesn’t work every time. For other tips on how to figure out how to determine the case ending for a word, visit the Russian StackExchange thread mentioned earlier.
And finally, details of the DIY project
Like I said, looking at the stem of a plural in the nominative (e.g., люд | и) won’t always follow the rules that are based off of the stem of the singular nominative form (which is used for those nouns that have both a singular and a plural form). But I also realized that very few nouns in Russian are probably found exclusively in the plural. So I quickly cobbled together a list of some based off of a list of plural nouns I had found in English. I’m fairly certain that Russian has some plural nouns that aren’t exclusively plural in English, but I couldn’t easily find such a list, so I worked off of an English list and went from there. The observations you can make from this list of plurale tantum nouns are as follows:
- The majority of stems end in a consonant.
- Those that end in a consonant are usually going to drop the ending for the genitive plural.
- If the ending is not dropped for those that end in a consonant, the next most likely ending is either –ов or –ев.
- Those that end in –и preceded by a consonant other than г, к, or ц end in –ей.
My observations were based off of the collection of nouns you see in the image below:
See the “Simplified Rule for the Genitive Plural of Nouns” chart above for the key to the rules listed in this chart.
Well, hope that helps someone out there and, as always, if you have anything more to contribute, please add your comments below!
You have a typo in “На улице нет люлей.” It should be like this: “На улице нет людей.”
@FieryCat My most frequent typo -- typing the л instead of д and vice versa. Thank you for noticing. I would correct it, but, well, it's too complicated to explain so I hope readers will either 1) not notice, 2) figure it out, or 3) scroll down and read your comment. Again, thank you for the correction.
There is a word нелюдь - "unhuman" )))
It is musculine and thus cannot belong to 3-d declension
Interesting. I'm not all that familiar with the categories of declension, but hadn't been all that aware that the 3rd declension was reserved for masculine nouns. From an orthographical or phonetic perspective, however, it does fit the rule I developed for the "plurale tantum." Granted, не́людь is not a plurale tantum in that it is also used in singular form. Nevertheless, thank you for sharing your knowledge with us @alex_tv80. I learned something new.
Declensions as taught in Russian schools are:
- 1st: кошка, школа, земля, тётя, мама, папа, дядя, Анна, Виктория etc.
- 2nd: окно, яйцо, море, полотенце, изображение / брат, компьютер, отец, учитель, стол etc.
- 3rd: мать, мышь, ночь, панель, деталь, нежность, болезнь, мудрость etc.