- No clear border between singular and plural in Japanese
- Adverbs for plural in Japanese
- Suffixes for plural in Japanese
- Repeating the same noun
- Summary of plural in Japanese
No clear border between singular and plural in JapaneseAgain, there is no clear border between singular and plural in Japanese. For your better understanding, let me take one example as follows.
Example 1Below is a very simple example, but sufficient to show the difference between English and Japanese.
- tsukue – 机 (つくえ) : a noun to mean ‘a desk/desks’ or ‘a table/tables’.
- ga – が : a case particle working as a case maker. In the example sentence above, it helps the noun, “tsukue”, to become the subject.
- aru – ある : a verb to mean ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’. It expresses existence of inanimate things, so corresponds well to “here is/are” or “there is/are”.
This trait would be very confusing. Especially for those who are familiar with languages in which nouns have different forms for singular and plural, this would be terrible. But please don’t worry that much. To be honest, even native speakers often get confused with the border.
Adverbs for plural in JapaneseIn the last chapter, I explained that there is no clear border between singular and plural in Japanese. This is because Japanese nouns never change their forms for singular and plural respectively. This fact is confusing even to native speakers. However, unfortunately, they cannot change it. They have lived with these nouns for over a thousand years. Changing it now would be much more confusing to them and not practical at all. Plus, that change would be very terrible for Japanese learners who already mastered this point. …there is no way to express plural in Japanese?
To tell the truth, Japanese native speakers often use adverbs to express plural explicitly. They cannot change nouns, so decided to use other words supplementally. Through the following example, let’s check how they avoid possible confusion.
Example 2: adverbs to express plural
- ikutsuka – いくつか : an adverb to mean ‘a few’, ‘several’ or ‘some’.
Japanese native speakers often use this word to express plural, and also to avoid confusion between singular and plural. Other than this, some words or phrases can be also used in a similar way. For instance, specifying an actual number of nouns is very possible. However, Japanese nouns still do not give us any information enables us to judge if they are singular or plural. In English, we have a magic character “s” or sometimes characters “es”. Doesn’t Japanese language have such useful characters?
Suffixes for plural in JapaneseI explained that basically Japanese nouns do not change their forms for singular and plural. Yet, this does not mean they cannot be connected with a suffix. In Japanese, there are two useful suffixes to make plural. In the following paragraphs, I will explain them through examples.
Example 3: how to use a suffix, “tachi”
- watashi – 私 (わたし) : a pronoun to mean ‘I’.
- tachi – 達 (たち) : a suffix added after a noun to change it to plural.
- wa – は : a binding particle working as a case maker or a topic maker. Here it works as a case maker to help a noun watashitachi to become the subject.
- nihonjin – 日本人 (にほんじん) : a noun to mean ‘the Japanese’ or ‘Japanese people’.
- desu – です : an auxiliary verb to make honorific declarative or assertive expressions.
Now we reached the magical suffix “tachi” which keeps us away from any possible confusion between singular and plural. However, unfortunately, we can add it only after nouns which express living things. In the example above, “tachi” follows directly after the noun “watashi” corresponding to “I”. Definitely, “I” is a human being. So it can be used together with “tachi”. In the next example, let’s see what happens if the suffix is used together with an inanimate thing.
Example 4: use “tachi” together with an inanimate thing
Again the example sentence sounds weird. So we need to be careful with the use of the suffix, “tachi”. It’s not an all-rounder. Depending on nouns used together, it would be very helpful though.
Example 5: use of a suffix, “ra”Another suffix is “ra”. Below is an example using it.
- kare – 彼 (かれ) : a pronoun to mean ‘he’. It’s also used to call one’s boy friend depending on context.
- ra – 等 (ら) : a suffix used together with a pronoun to make its plural form. Here, the pronoun, “kare”, and “ra” form a plural pronoun, “kare ra”, meaning ‘they’.
- no – の : a case particle to make the possessive case in a sentence. In this example, it follows a noun part, “kare ra”, and makes the possessive case in the example, ‘their’.
Repeating the same nounSpeaking of suffixes, I need to explain another suffix-like word as well. It’s not a suffix really, but put after a noun to make its plural form. It is the noun itself. What I am saying here is repeating the same noun twice can be a way to make plural in Japanese. Even one example is worth a hundred lines of explanations. So, please take a look at an example below.
- hibi – 日日 (ひび) : a noun to mean ‘days’. Depending on context, it also corresponds well to words like ‘daily’.
As usual, we need to be aware that this method does not always work well. Below is one exception.
- tokidoki – 時々 (ときどき) : an adverb to mean ‘sometimes’, ‘at times’ or ‘occasionally’. It also can be a noun to mean ‘times’, but its use is highly limited.
Definitely, “々” helps us to make plural nouns. However, unfortunately, before using it, we need to know which noun can work together with it. So, in a way, its use presupposes knowledge of Japanese vocabulary.
Summary of plural in JapaneseIn this blog post, I’ve explained plural in Japanese and how to make it with the help of the suffix, “tachi”. Let me summarize my explanations as follows.
- Basically Japanese native speakers don’t differentiate singular from plural.
- Even they get confused with singular and plural because Japanese nouns do not change their forms.
- Some words help us to avoid confusion between singular and plural. The adverb, “ikutsuka”, is one of them and helps us to express plural explicitly.
- The suffix, “tachi”, helps us to change Japanese nouns to plural, but it can be added only after nouns expressing living things.
- The suffix, “ra”, is put just after a pronoun to make its plural form. It can go only with a pronoun, so we need to be careful with its use.
- Repeating the same noun can be one solution to make plural, but this method presupposes knowledge of Japanese vocabulary.
AppendixThis is a bit off-topic, but seeing the difference between English and Japanese though proverbs is interesting. So let me take one example below.
Example 6: Pearl vs PearlsSome Japanese proverbs correspond well to English ones. Perhaps, they came from the same source originally. The following proverb is one of them.
- buta – 豚 (ぶた) : a noun to mean ‘a pig/pigs’ or ‘swine’.
- ni – に : a case particle to indicate a direction.
- shinju – 真珠 (しんじゅ) : a noun to mean ‘a pearl/pearls’.
As I explained, Japanese people often get confused between singular and plural. In addition to this, impressions from the same proverb could be different depending on languages. Even the same thing could give us different impressions. This must be hard for everyone, but could be very interesting. Leaning a language means learning the culture behind.
Japanese Particles Master
Masaki Mori is a Japanese particles master. Through teaching Japanese language, he is trying to spread the culture of Japan. His goal is to preserve it as much as possible.