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Plurals in Japanese - Grammar - How Do They Work?

Friday, August 11, 2017
Singular and plural are grammar concepts that exist in every language. In singular you have one "thing" and in plural you have two or more "things." What changes between languages is how you express the plurality in words. In English we often use an "s" suffix, but how do we make a word plural in Japanese?

Kinds of Plurals

In English, we can just add an "~s" to a noun and voila, it's a plural! Except for some words which we have to use "~es" or "~ies" instead. And there are also words like "money" in English that are plural by nature. But anyway, most of the time it's just an "~s." In Japanese things work in a similar although different way.

For starters, the way nouns become plural vary depending on what kind of noun they are. Regarding their pluralization, we can divide nouns in these kinds:
  1. Simple nouns.
  2. Plural nouns.
  3. Personal nouns.
  4. Personal pronouns.
  5. Demonstrative pronouns.

Simple nouns refer to the average noun that doesn't fit into other kinds. Plural nouns are nouns that already plural by nature, so you can't make them plural again, like English's "money." Personal nouns and personal pronouns are words that refer to people ("student," person noun, "she," personal pronoun). And the demonstrative pronouns would be "this, these, that, those."

(technically, grammatically speaking, a personal pronoun isn't necessarily related to people, but to the grammatical person. Some call it animate pronouns instead since it relates to living, animate things. The "personal" I'm using in this article is for actual persons, it has little to do with grammar person)

Pluralizing Simple Nouns

To pluralize a given random, simple noun in Japanese we do not add an "~s" like we do in English. The plural of "chair," isu 椅子 is not isus. So what suffix we add instead? What do we say after a word to make it plural in Japanese?

Nothing.

Yep. You heard that right. Absolutely nothing.

Ambiguous Plurals

Simple nouns in Japanese simply can't be pluralized, for they are already plural... and not. They are singular and plural at the same time. Quantum-plural. Schrodinger's plural. Ambiguous, confusing plural. Call it whatever you want, the point is these nouns can be interpreted as either singular or plural in any given phrase.

If you think this is weird, note that this isn't the only case where an explicit certainty in English becomes an implicit ambiguity in Japanese. There are no definite-indefinite articles in Japanese, either. That is, on top of there being no equivalent for English's "~s" suffix, there is also no "a," "an," and "the" in Japanese.

This mean that a single noun in Japanese can be either definite or indefinite and singular or plural. Both definiteness and plurality are ambiguous. The same word can be indefinite singular, indefinite plural, definite singular, or definite plural. I mean, just look at this example:
  • tamago wo katta 卵を買った

Above we have a simple sentence with the verb "to buy." We are saying something like "[I] bought...":
  1. an egg (indefinite singular)
  2. eggs (indefinite plural)
  3. the egg (definite singular)
  4. the eggs (definite plural)

So I could be saying I bought "an egg," like they were selling these magic eggs and I bought a random one of them. Or I could be saying I bought "eggs." Like, not just a singular egg, a whole anime carton of eggs, like a normal person being would. Or I could have bought the egg, that super special egg we were talking about the other day. Or it could be the eggs, like, not unwarranted eggs, you told me "go buy eggs" and I came back with "the" eggs.

The four scenarios above would be expressed with slightly different phrases in English, but in Japanese a single phrase can express any of them. This is because the noun can be singular or plural. The noun can be definite or indefinite. The Japanese phrase lacks the explicitness we take for granted in English.

Some other examples:
  • hito wo utagau 人を疑う
    To doubt a person (specific).
    To doubt people (general).
  • kuruma wo unten suru 車を運転する
    To drive the car (I'm the assigned driver)
    To driver cars (it's my job, I'm a pilot)
  • kudamono wo taberu 果物を食べる
    To eat a fruit (because I'm hungry)
    To eat fruits (is good for a healthy diet)

Singular & Plural in Japanese: & Definite & Indefinite & Their Ambiguity - showing the many ways the phrase neko wa kawaii 猫は可愛い can be translated form Japanese to English: the cat is cute, the cats are cute, a cat is cute, cats are cute.

There Are No Plurals in Japanese

A better way to think about is that the very concept of plurals basically doesn't exist in Japanese. For example, if you started studying English grammar or some other Latin language grammar, you'd come across the concept of plural agreement. It's a grammar rule that says "thing is" and "things are"  are correct because the number of the verb agrees with the number of the noun, however "thing are" and "things is" would be incorrect, since then the grammatical numbers don't agree with each other.

In Japanese, such thing doesn't exist. There is no verb or anything else with a grammatical number in Japanese, so it's impossible for a word to agree or disagree with another since none of them have numbers. Because of this, you wouldn't even learn about "plurals" in school if you were a Japanese native, because the language doesn't even have plurals to begin with so how the hell would you learn about "plurals" when there's no plurals to learn about?!

To have an idea, for some people born in Japan the first time they even get to hear the words "singular" and "plural" in Japanese, tansuu 単数 and fukusuu 複数, is when they start learning English (ironically) since English has plurals.

But if there are no plurals in Japanese, then what the hell is this article about?! Why is there so much text about something that doesn't even exist? Instead of talking about non-existential plurals, the text below is more about how to deal with the lack of plurals in Japanese as someone who comes from a languages that has plurals. If you don't need help with that, just skip over to the nouns that are already plural section.

 How to Tell if a Noun is Singular or Plural

Doesn't the lack of plurals and this ambiguity create a lot of inconvenience and trouble for the native speakers? I mean, imagine telling somebody to go buy eggs and he comes back with a single egg. Are you kidding me? A single, singular egg? What am I supposed to do with this?! I can't make scrambled eggs with just one egg! That would be scrambled egg instead!

How can people survive in such ambiguity? Without explicit definiteness and plurality?

It's actually very simple: all you have to do is rely on the context.

Plurals & Context

It's true that in theory we can't know whether a Japanese noun is singular or plural from how it's written in a phrase, but in practice we almost always do. This happens because, unlike the single phrase examples of this post, real-world speech has context, and in this context are hints to make the ambiguity of plurality less ambiguous.

For example, take the following phrase:
  • ningen ga shinda 人間が死んだ
    The human died.
    The humans died.
    A human died.
    Humans died.

Depending on the definiteness and plurality of the noun ningen, we can have these four different meanings:
  1. One specific human died.
  2. The entire human race died.
  3. One random human died.
  4. A random bunch of humans died.

It's impossible to tell which one it's talking about just from the phrase, so let's add a bit of context. Imagine that before the phrase, in the manga, anime or story you were reading, you had the following contextual scenario:

There's a magical world with magical creatures and their society, and there are no humans in such place Except one day one human shows up (just like in "The Boy and The Beast / Monster Child," Bakemono no Ko バケモノの子). If there's only one human, then he is the single human, because you don't even have another human to refer to. 

There's a post-apocalyptic world called Earth. The planet is a mess, completely destroyed. Aliens investigate the cause so it won't happen to them. They note that a species called "humans" once walked upon the Earth. However, the humans died in the apocalypse.

There's a spirit society hidden in the human realm. Demons, spirits, and other stuff like that live alongside humans. These non-human beings have daily feuds and fights for territory away from people's eyes, and special humans called Exorcists keep them in check. One day one of these turf battles end in a tragedy: a human died.

Alternatively, the turf battle made a bigger tragedy and a bunch of humans died.

So although the phrase is indeed ambiguous, the rest of the story, the context, will most of the time give you enough hints to tell whether the noun refers to definite or indefinite, singular or plural. So you don't really need to worry about that.

On top of that, when you really need to make it explicit whether a noun is singular or plural there are adjectives that can do that.

Singular & Plural Number Adjectives

We can say "the thing" and "the things" in English, but we don't say "one things" or "two thing." In Japanese... we sort of do that. We do say "one thing," "two thing." See example:
  • ippiki no nezumi 一匹のネズミ
    One rat.
  • nihiki no nezumi 二匹のネズミ
    Two rat.

(how numbers work in Japanese and the usage of counters suffixes were explained in other posts)

Words in Japanese really don't have plural versions, so nezumi doesn't become nezumis or whatever even when it's explicitly plural, that is, even when we say verbatim there's two of them.

However, there is no ambiguity when we explicitly state the numbers. "One rat" is obviously singular, and "two rat" is obviously plural.

That said, phrases like above are uncommon. They only appear when there's an actual need to explicitly state the number of things in Japanese. Just liker we only say "there's one rat here" in English when we specifically want to point out how many rats are there. The simple existence of the rat can be expressed by just "there's a rat here."  Japanese works the same way.

Many other adjectives which are not literally numbers also have similar effect. For example:
  • yuuitsu no nezumi 雄一のネズミ
    The sole rat. (singular)
  • ooku no nezumi 多くのネズミ
    Many rats. (plural)

Unknown Numbers

If there is no explicit number in the sentence, as is the case most of the time, then there's simply no way of knowing the plurality of the noun in the sentence. Then you have to rely on the discourse context, on the story. But what happens if the context doesn't say it either?

For example, imagine you're a reading a manga like this:
  • In a page, there are 2 demons
  • In the next page a human yells an order to his team:
    akuma wo taose 悪魔を倒せ!
    Defeat the demons!

In the case above, we first see 2 demons, that's part of the context then, and someone says to defeat the akuma. Well, you know there are 2 of them. So it's demons." Clearly he's not saying defeat "the demon" because we know there's two of them. But what happens if we flip the scenario?
  • In a page, a human yells an order to him team:
    akuma wo taose 悪魔を倒せ!
    Defeat the demons!
  • In the next page, their target: one single demon.

Oops! Since in the first example there were 2 demons we assume this time, too, it would be "defeat the demons," but it turns out there was only one of them. So the correct translations should have been "defeat the demon" in singular.

You can't really blame me for this translation error. There were no demons in the context when the human yells the order. We only get to know how many of them were there in the next page. How was I supposed to know there was only one of them? I can't know things that haven't happened yet.

This same kind of mistake occurs in many translations of manga and subtitles in anime, specially those that lack enough quality control. You might have seen it happen before, you might see it happen in the future. And it's rather common because Japanese simply doesn't tell whether a noun is plural or not, while English requires you to tell this same information.

And so I must advise once again that you shouldn't try to translate phrases to English in order to understand them. You should try to understand the phrases as-is in Japanese. But since Japanese plurals might be too weird from English perspective, I suppose it's a good idea to show an English equivalent of Japanese plurals.

Quotable Sentences With Labels

In English, is there a way to make a singular noun plural without changing the word? You know, the way Japanese works?

The answer is: sort of.

To understand this, an example:
  • gakusei ga nanimo shiranai 学生が何も知らない
    student doesn't know anything.
    The student doesn't know anything.
    The students don't know anything.
    Students don't know anything.

Above we have another ambiguous Japanese phrase with its possible English interpretations.

Now, imagine the face of some iconic historic figure. Like Einstein. Or Bruce Lee. Or Hitler. Yeah, Hitler is good. Let's go with Hitler. Now pretend the following text is written beside Hitler's face on your Facebook feed. Notice I made it a little more pompous, but the meaning remains the same. Also make it sure you read it like you're philosopher in a Hollywood movie about the classical era, and don't forget to nod to yourself after finishing for extra I-am-so-deep points..
  • "The student knows nothing." - Adolf Hitler, circa 2017

Well, well, well. What did Hitler mean by this? Who is "the student"? Who is that kid so incredibly oblivious even some iconic historic figure like Hitler is saying he knows nothing? Is the student a harem anime MC? Is it Amano Keita? Just who is it?

Obviously, it's nobody. And I don't mean it's a side-character without lines. I mean Hitler is speaking generally, proverbially. He is not talking about a single student, but the kind of person labelled as "student." The demographic category "student." Those under the "student" label.

Another example:
  • The American college student is virtuous and grateful, always feeling in debt with someone.

Uh... another example.
  • The cat doesn't concern himself with the worries of the rat.
  • The strong prey on the weak.
  • The dinosaur was a very big lizard that perished to an even more very big falling rock.

I think this gets the point across.

Anyway, although this concept probably isn't very used with sentences in the pattern "X does Y," it can help you get through ambiguous "X is Y" phrases. For example, imagine a character seeing a bunch of kittens meowing in one place and going::
  • neko wa kawaii! 猫は可愛い!
    Cats? The cats? Cat? A cat? Is? Are? Cute!

Instead of doing the mental exercise of figuring out whether neko is singular or plural, just pretend it's Hitler philosophizing on your Facebook feed instead.
  • The cat is cute - Adolf Hitler

Nouns Already Plural

Now that we know to assume the normal noun is singular and that's it, there's no plural, let's see some nouns that are plural and that's it, there is no singular.

Such nouns are often in the form of repeated kanji, most of the time containing the symbol kurikaeshi. See:
  • hito
    Person.
  • hitobito 人々
    People.
  • yama
    Mountain.
  • yamayama 山々
    Mountains.
  • ki
    Tree.
  • kigi 木々
    Trees.
  • kuni
    Country.
  • kuniguni 国々
    Countries.

Do note that the phenomenon above is not some generic grammar rule. That is, the words above already exist and are used in Japanese. You can't just add a 々 to a word or say it twice in order to create a plural.  For example:
  • isu 椅子
    Chair.
  • isuisu 椅子々々
    Chairs (this word doesn't exist!!!)

On top of that, some words with the repeater are numerous in a sense, but aren't simply making a singular plural. Example:
  • hou 方
    Direction..
  • houbou 方々
    [All] directions. (not simply plural, all of them)
    Everywhere.

And then there are cases where the word isn't in anyway plural.
  • tsugi
    Next.
  • tsugitsugi 次々
    Sequentially. One after another.

The point is, some words with 々 are plural and only plural in Japanese, never being used as singular.

Personal Nouns in Plural

Personal nouns are nouns which refer to people. In Japanese, personal nouns get treated differently from other nouns, because they refer to people, and anything related to people regularly get special treatment in the language.

Specifically, a personal noun can be turned plural by the usage of a pluralizing suffix like ~tachi ~達 or ~ra ~等. These work essentially like the "~s" suffix in English.
  • gakusei 学生
    A student. (a person)
  • gakuseitachi 学生達
    The students. (people)
  • tenshi 天使
    An angel. (a person, sort of)
  • tenshitachi 天使達
    Angels. (people, sort of)

Above we can see how the ~tachi suffixes turn nouns that refer to a single person into nouns that refer to multiple people. Note that this suffix is only used with people. The following would be wrong, for example:
  • tsukue
    Desk.
  • tsukutachi 机達
    Desks. (wrong, sort of)

There are cases where ~tachi can be used with objects, but normally it can't. So bear in mind you can not just add ~tachi to whatever and make it plural. It is only used with people.

Also, grammatically, ~tachi is not exactly necessary for a plural. We use ~tachi and other pluralizing suffixes as a form of respect, to differentiate groups of people from mere things, objects, or abstract concepts. Conversely, if we don't use ~tachi in a situation where we have a plural, it can imply we are referring to a label concept instead of actual people, since if it were about actual people we would have used ~tachi, but we didn't. For example:
  • tenshi-tachi wa kirei 天使たちは綺麗
    The angels are pretty.
  • tenshi wa kirei 天使は綺麗
    Angels are pretty.

The difference between the above is that one refers to angel-people where the other refers to the angel concept. In most cases, the angel-people example (~tachi) has actual angel-people in sight somewhere, or the speaker isn't seeing them right now but he's friends with some angel-people. It's saying, these guys (girls?), the angels, they are pretty. Meanwhile the angel label example (no ~tachi) can be referring to angels in general, the concept, or to the angel in an angel-vs-demon-which-is-prettier situation. Quoth the Führer: "the angel is pretty."

Another case: if we were talking about how students are in general chances are we'd use just gakusei. But if it was a teacher talking about the students of his class it would be gakusei-tachi.

Further, if there was an article about a given profession, just the profession name, "some-profession," would be enough to talk about the profession in general, but something like some-profession-tachi would refer to people who work in that profession. Example: pan'ya-san パン屋さん, "baker," "bakers,"  etc., while  pan'ya-san-tachi パン屋さんたち regards exclusively to the people who are bakers.

Personal Pronouns in Plural

Like personal nouns, personal pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they) also receive the pluralizing suffixes ~tachi or ~ra to turn themselves into plurals.

(technically, personal nouns are called "personal" because it refers to the grammar person, not to actual persons. But here I'm using the word "personal" to say they refer to people, my use of the word has nothing to do with grammar, but with cultural constructs!)

See:
  • watashitachi 私達
    oretachi 俺達
    orera 俺ら
    bokutachi 僕達
    bokura 僕ら
    We.
  • anatatachi 貴方達
    kimitachi 君達
    omaetachi お前達
    omaera お前ら
    temeera 手前ら
    kisamara 貴様ら
    You (plural)
  • kanojotachi 彼女達
    kanojora 彼女ら
    karera 彼ら
    They

Note that in English the word "you" works as both singular and plural. In Japanese, omae is specifically "you" singular, omaetachi and omaera specifically "you" plural.

Since this article is only about plurals, it won't cover the specific nuances of when to use one pronoun or another. Those nuances have already been explained in other articles:

Demonstrative Pronouns in Plural

Finally, some demonstrative pronouns can be turned plural by adding the ~ra suffix to them. This works a little differently from the personal plurals above.

In personal plurals, we could use ~tachi, ~ra and other suffixes. However, in these demonstrative plurals, we can only use ~ra. See:
  • korera これら
    These.
  • sorera それら
    Those.
  • arera あれら
    Those.
  • koitsura こいつら
    These [guys].
  • soitsura そいつら
    Those [guys].
  • aitsura あいつら
    Those [guys].
  • yatsura 奴ら
    Those guys.

The words above are the plural versions of kore, sore, are, koitsu, soitsu, aitsu and yatsu. Once again, this article is only about plurals, so if you want to know the nuances of those words check out their respective articles:

So now you know how plurals work in Japanese.

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