Many languages across the world express distinction in counting. In English, words that can be counted are either singular or plural; in other languages such as Sanskrit, words can be dual as well (indicating a count of two). Some languages such as Japanese may have optional number marking as well! The category of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verb conjugations that expresses count distinctions is called grammatical number. In English, counts are distinguished between singular (apple) and plural (apples), thus we say English only distinguishes between singular and plural. Nepali also does the same, distinguishing between singular and plural only.
Grammatical number is called वचन (vacan) in Nepali. Words other than verbs are very easy to decline for number in Nepali. The rules are very simple, even more so for nominal cases.
|इस्तिरी (istirī)||Iron (device)|
NOUNS AND PRONOUNS
In English, we express a singular noun subject by not inflecting it at all. For example:
Now, if it were plural, we need to inflect it to show its number. We usually do it by adding ‘s’ after the word:
Some words in English may have irregular plural forms, such as mouse (mice), deer (deer) and radius (radii). Fortunately, Nepali does this a bit more simply, by adding only one suffix to every word that can be pluralized. This suffix is called the pluralizer.
In order to turn a singular noun into plural, we add हरू (harū) after the word (without spaces).
For example, let’s take the Nepali word for hand i.e. हात (hāt):
हात (hāt) [singular] + हरू (harū) [pluralizer] = हातहरू (hāt-harū) | hands
Very simple, right? Let’s now take the Nepali word for iron (device) i.e. इस्तिरी (istirī):
इस्तिरी (istirī) + हरू (harū) = इस्तिरीहरू (istirī-harū)
The above works for almost every singular word, except for singular words that end with an ओ (o) sound. For such words, we need to convert the respective sound into an आ (ā) sound. Optionally, we add the pluralizer.
There are some singular words that end in an ओ (o) sound. For example:
केटो | keṭo चरो | caro
The rule is to convert the respective sound into an आ (ā) sound to obtain the plural. For example:
केटो (keṭo) > केटा (keṭā) | Boys चरो (caro) > चरा (carā) | Birds
The next step is optional. We can also add a pluralizer, or leave it out altogether. For example, the below is also equally valid:
केटा (keṭā) + हरू (harū) = केटाहरू (keṭā-harū) | Boys-es
Uncountable nouns such as water and rice do not have singular and plural versions. In everyday Nepali, the converted form of some o-sound singulars (i.e. ā-sound) can also be used as singular words. For example, you will hear people use ‘keṭā’ to refer to one boy, instead of using the slightly more correct ‘keṭo’. When this happens, the plural is usually the one with the pluralizer. This is because the productivity of the plural (meaning, how much ‘plural-ness’ the plural expresses) has decreased.
Pronouns follow the same rule as nouns. ऊ (ū) does not have a plural form, so you must use the plural form of उनी (unī) instead i.e. उनीहरू (unīharū). Also, you cannot pluralize first person pronouns as they cannot be declined for number. The reason why is because the words themselves are already declined for it! Generally speaking, if a pronoun already has a plural form, you do not normally decline it with the pluralizer.
Adjectives are also declined for number, though not all adjectives can be declined. The only ones you can decline are the ones that end in ओ (o) sound. Do we see where we are going with this?
Indeed, the rule is almost the same as for nouns. You convert the respective sound into an आ (ā) sound and that’s about it! Unlike nouns, you do not add the pluralizer to adjectives nor do you have the option to if you want to sound correct.
Let’s take a few examples:
रातो | rāto गोरो | goro नरम | naram
When declined for number, you get the following. Notice the sound changes (and the lack of the pluralizer harū):
रातो (rāto) > राता (rātā) गोरो (goro) > गोरा (gorā) नरम (naram) > नरम (naram) [not declined because it does not end with the sound required]
Declining verbs for number are more complex, such that it is beyond the scope of this lesson. We shall rather look at in verb conjugations, from where we will learn more on subject-verb agreement and other grammar titbits.
Adverbs are not declined for number. In fact, adverbs, conjunctions and a few other categories of words are called अव्यय (avyaya) in Nepali, which means ‘Indeclinable(s)’. In simple words, they are not declined for any properties the subject may have.
USE OF PLURALS
The way that plurals are used in Nepali is rather unique; plural markings are often optional and not obligatory. It is not required to mark grammatical number in nouns, pronouns and adjectives if the quantity is already expressed in the context. In other words, number marking is not obligatory and you can do fine without it if you have already expressed the number sometime before. It is almost like saying ‘two eye’ in English, but in Nepali such would be a valid sentence as the number has already been mentioned.
Example | Nepali often does not mark plurals. Take the following sentence: स्याउ मिठो हुन्छ (syāu miṭho huncha) = Apples are tasty The Nepali form uses the singular 'apple' to represent the collective 'apples'. The sentence is more close to "apple is tasty", but is more commonly translated as "apples are tasty" to represent the same idea. You could say स्याउहरू (syāu-harū), but it could imply something else. More below.
When number is shown with harū, it often does not indicate a simple plural but a rather complex idea. This complex idea can be a group, a category, a collective or things similar to it. For example, if you say ‘books’ in English, the idea is very simple: there is more than one book. In Nepali, if you say किताबहरू (kitāb-harū), then it could mean that there is more than one book, but could also mean: books and other things like it, or books as a collective, or books as a category etc.
This idea can extend to other concepts like names as well. Saying जनहरू (jan-harū) does not suddenly mean you are in a conference for people named John, but rather could mean: John and his friends, or John and his family, or John and his colleagues etc. In this regard, pluralizing John does not mean many Johns, but rather refers to John and ideas/things related to him.
Thus, you will often hear double plurals like केटाहरू (keṭā-harū) because it can be used to represent a more complex plural, or because the simple plural (through the sound change) just doesn’t sound plural enough (we say the plural has become unproductive). This is a common phenomenon in other languages as well, and an example I like to demonstrate this is with the plural word ‘children‘, which came from cildra/cildru, which itself used to be the plural for child.
Number is often expressed in the verb conjugation, but this marking can be sometimes weak in the third person perspective.
Adjectives are also usually not declined for number in everyday Nepali.
- Adding -हरू(harū) after a countable noun or pronoun that does not end in an o-sound pluralizes it. Adjectives cannot be marked with it, however.
- Singular nouns and adjectives that end in an o-sound can be converted by changing the o-sound into an ā-sound. One may also add -हरू(harū) for added emphasis.
- Adverbs and some adjectives cannot be pluralized.
- It is not obligatory to mark number if it is clear from the context or expressed somewhere else before.
- In Nepali, plurals are rarely simple plurals but can be used to express a more complex, collective idea.
A. CONVERT THE FOLLOWING SINGULAR WORDS INTO PLURAL WORDS IN NEPALI
2. विद्यार्थी (vidyārthī) | student
3. सेतो (seto) | white
4. पानी (pānī) | water
5. दयालु (dayālu) | kind
6. बाटो (bāṭo) | road
B. CONVERT THE FOLLOWING PLURAL WORDS INTO SINGULAR WORDS IN NEPALI
1. मुसाहरू (musā-harū) | mice
2. जहाजहरू (jahāj-harū) | ships
3. छोराहरू (chorā-harū) | sons
4. अग्ला (aglā) | tall
5. सुन (sun) | gold
A.1. हातहरू (hāt-harū)
A.2. विद्यार्थीहरू (vidyārthī-harū)
A.3. सेता (setā)
A.4. पानी (pānī) [does not change because water is uncountable]
A.5. दयालु (dayālu) [does not change because it not an o-adjective]
A.6. बाटा (bāṭā)
B.1. मुसो (muso)
B.2. जहाज (jahāj)
B.3. छोरो (choro)
B.4. अग्लो (aglo)
B.5. सुन (sun) [does not change because gold is uncountable]