Romance plurals

This article describes the different ways of forming the plural forms of nouns and adjectives in the Romance languages, and discusses various hypotheses about how these systems emerged historically from the declension patterns of Vulgar Latin.

Two types of plural marking

Romance languages can be divided into two broad groups depending on how the regular plural forms of nouns and adjectives are formed.

One strategy is the addition of the plural suffix -s. For example:

Modern languages that have this type of plural suffix include Catalan, French, Occitan, Portuguese, Galician, Romansh, Sardinian and Spanish.

The other strategy involves changing (or adding) the final vowel:

The main examples of modern Romance languages exhibiting this type of plural marking are Italian and Romanian.

Broadly speaking, languages spoken in areas to the north and west of Italy typically have s-marking of plurals, while languages spoken in central/southern Italy and to the east of Italy have vocalic marking of plurals.

The historical development of these two distinct types of plural morphology is an important and controversial topic in Romance philology.


The following table illustrates the singular and plural forms of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd declensions in Classical Latin.

bona "good (fem.)" bonus "good (masc.)" mater "mother" homo "man"
singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
nominative bona bonae bonus bonī mater matrēs homō homĭnēs
accusative bonam bonās bonum bonōs matrem matrēs homĭnem homĭnēs

The corresponding Vulgar Latin forms are shown below:[1]

singular plural singular plural singular plural singular plural
nominative ˈbɔna ˈbɔne ˈbɔno ˈbɔni ˈmadre ˈmadres ˈɔmo ˈɔmines
accusative ˈbɔna ˈbɔnas ˈbɔno ˈbɔnos ˈmadre ˈmadres ˈɔmine ˈɔmines

Origin of plural -s

The plural forms in -s in languages like Spanish (for example, buenas madres "good mothers", buenos hombres "good men") can be straightforwardly explained as descendants of Latin accusative forms in -as, -os and -es.

On the other hand, 3rd declension nouns and adjectives have -es in both nominative and accusative, however, so the -s plural for these words could derive from either case form. There is also evidence that Vulgar Latin may have preserved the nominative plural ending -as in the 1st declension, attested in Old Latin and replaced by -ae in literary Classical Latin. The Romance varieties that maintained the distinction between nominative and accusative cases in the medieval period (Old French, Old Occitan, Old Sursilvan) have forms in -s for both nominative and accusative plurals of feminine nouns of the first declension.

Origin of vocalic plurals

There is debate over the origin of the plurals of Italy and Romania, with some claiming that they derive from the Latin nominative endings -Ī -AE and others that they partly derive from the Latin accusative endings. The "nominative" theory appears more straightforward at first; however, the "accusative" theory is more common currently.

The Italian endings are -i (for nouns in -o and -e), and -e (for nouns in -a). The nominative theory suggests that the -o plural -i and the -a plural -e are derived straightforwardly from nominative -Ī and -AE, respectively (it is known that AE > e in all Romance languages), and that the -e plural -i is derived by analogy with the -o plural. (The corresponding nominative form in Latin is -ĒS. With the loss of final /s/, singular and plural would both have -e, which is problematic and was rectified by borrowing -i.)

The accusative theory proposes that suggesting that Italian -e derives from -as:

  1. In Italian, masculine amico has plural amici with /tʃ/ (the expected palatal outcome before -Ī), but feminine amica has plural amiche, with /k/ that is unexpected if e < -AE, but expected if e < -ĀS. (The change AE > e occurred long before palatalization, hence /tʃ/ is expected here too. It is unlikely that this unusual distribution is due to analogy; if so, either /tʃ/ or /k/ would be expected in both plural forms.)
  2. Neapolitan and certain other minority Italian languages have unexpected alternations like gatto "(male) cat", i atti "the (male) cats" vs. gatta "(female) cat", e ggatte "the (female) cats". In these languages, loss of /ɡ/ is expected between vowels; the form with /ɡɡ/, as in e ggatte, would normally only occur if there was a lost consonant formerly preceding the /ɡ/. This suggests that Neapolitan e (standard Italian le) comes from Latin (ILL)ĀS, not *(ILL)AE.
  3. The isolated Italian word dunque "thus" corresponds to Sardinian duncas. Neither word can be derived from Latin DUMQUAM, and the isolated nature of the word means that analogical change is unlikely. Sardinian duncas suggests Proto-Romance *DUNQUAS, with dunque the expected outcome (even down to the unusual qu preceding e) if -AS > e.

The "accusative" theory essentially suggests:

  1. Italian plurals are indeed derived from the nominative plural.
  2. However, Proto-Romance had nominative plural -ĀS, not *-AE.
  3. The following sound changes took place:
    1. /as/ > /ai/, /es/ > /ei/.
    2. In unstressed syllables, /ai/ > /e/, /ei/ > /i/.

The first of these changes is almost certain, given examples like tu stai "you stand" < TŪ STĀS; Southern Italian crai "tomorrow" < CRĀS; tu sei "you are" < TŪ S(ED)ĒS; sei "six" < SEX (probably Proto-Italian *sess); Southern Italian trei "three" < TRĒS. Note also noi "we" < NŌS. The second sound change is cross-linguistically extremely common. Furthermore, it explains a number of otherwise unexplainable forms in Italian:

Indicative tu ami "you love" < TŪ AMĀS is unexpected; we would expect *tu ame. However, tu ame is in fact attested in Old Tuscan. In this case, it appears that -i was generalized as the universal tu ending at the expense of -e. (Note the even more striking generalization of first plural -iamo, originally only the subjunctive form of -ere and -ire verbs.)

If this theory is correct, something similar must have happened in Romanian.


  1. See Romance_languages#Sound changes for a description of the regular sound correspondences relating Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin.

See also


This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/3/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.