Forming the German plural

QUESTION (received through my Facebook page):

“Well….I have a lot of problems with plurals, specially with those that don’t change (der Fahrer, die Fahrer) and those that change in a weird way (der Saal, die Säle)…and with the singular Tantrum (der Glanz)…since I’m assuming I’ll have to learn them by heart, it would be great to have a list (I am working on my own already, but if I can take advantage of the work of someone else…well, gerne!”

ANSWER:

That is a great question!

Whereas in English we generally just add an -s to the noun to form the plural (though try explaining to a German pupil learning English why it is “children” not “childs”!) German has about a dozen different ways to form the plural and in a lot of cases there is no proper rule for that that’ll cover all the forms. Instead you have more general rules of thumb that’ll cover a large number or some of the cases.

The good news is that you’re in good company. Even well educated Germans at some stage in their lives will come across a plural form they need help with. Just the other day a German Twitter buddy asked what the plural of “Plenum” is. It is “Plenen” though the original Latin plural form “Plena” apparently is also acceptable.

The moment you start learning German you are confronted with plural forms. You cannot form a sentence without using a noun so from Day 1 you need to find a way to learn the relevant plural forms. Given the large number of possible forms, it is best to simply memorise the right one any time you learn a new noun. So rather than just to learn: “das Fahrrad”, learn “das Fahrrad, die Fahrräder”. There really is no quick fix or short cut. (Sorry.)

Especially if you’re at an early stage in your studies, trying to understand possible rules is just going to confuse you unnecessarily. After all most Germans aren’t aware of those rules themselves and as children they also learned the plural forms one by one by trial and error. You could actually go through your whole German studies without ever needing to know the rules but if you have reached a level of expertise where you may want to learn a bit more about those forms, this is what you could do next.

First of all drop over to About.com to see a list of all the possible plural endings to get you started and give you a quick overview.

Unfortunately on those pages there is little in regards to theory so for this go to this Vistawide German page. They provide some additional info with regards to some of those forms.

Read through them all and specifically focus on the likelihoods mentioned in the text. Celebrate rules such as

“All feminine nouns ending in -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung have the plural suffix or -en. Feminine nouns ending in -in add -nen in the plural form. These never add an umlaut.”

as they apply to all the nouns in question.

If you read that

“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e.”

then you know that when in doubt you could make a well informed guess with the masculine words (and possibly also the neutral ones) but that the odds are against this ending for the feminine nouns.

Needless to say those rules will help you when you have some time to think about the answer e.g. when you’re writing an essay. Of course, when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion you won’t have time to stop and analyse what possible prefix may make whatever plural form necessary or what the odds are that a specfic noun has an -e as their plural but as an extra bit of info to help you choose the right forms these rules can be quite helpful once you are past the Beginner stage.

So let’s look at your individual queries:

der Fahrer – die Fahrer

This falls under the category of
“Nearly all masculine and neuter nouns that end in -er, -en, -el, -chen, -lein & collective neuter nouns beginning with Ge- have plurals that are identical to their singular forms or that simply add an umlaut.”
“der Fahrer” is masculine and with an -er ending. Hence the form doesn’t change in the plural. Mind you: As the text indicates there are a few exceptions such “der Bauer – die Bauern” but when in doubt rely on the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in your favour that nothing changes for the vast majority of those nouns.

der Saal – die Säle

This belongs to
“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e. Feminine nouns with the plural -e always take the umlaut. Masculine nouns often take the umlaut, but not always. Neuter nouns that have the plural -e rarely take the umlaut.”
So this is masculine meaning that it has a high likelihood of a) an -e plural ending and b) adding an Umlaut. If you were just speaking the word out aloud you’d have come up with the right solution just from this rule alone.
What is special about this though is that one of the vowels drops and we don’t write “die Sääle”. Generally we just don’t have two Umlaute in a row so this you just need to remember on an individual basis. Again, you are in excellent company about this. There are numerous threads about this on the Internet – one is here – from German natives wondering about this particular form as well.

der Glanz (the gloss, the shine)

You are right: this as well as some other words do not even have a plural form. Other examples are:
die Milch, die Erziehung, das Publikum, das Obst, das Gemüse, die Ruhe, die Stille.
These are by and large collective nouns or abstract terms where it just wouldn’t “feel” right to use the plural and in a lot (but not all) of the cases the English translation would also not carry a plural.

One thought on “Forming the German plural

  1. Pingback: Gender issues… Days 13-14 | Wie lerne ich gerade die deutsche Sprache

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