Plurals shmurals and how to predict them
OK, this is definitely a work in progress but someone asked for this so I'll have a go.
To quote Captain Barbossa, the following pointers are more like guidelines. Plurals in most languages are hard to predict with certainty, but there are some things that can make life easier. Also, note that many words can take more than one plural form, depending on the (native) speaker.
And if anyone starts talking at you about first declension, second declension, and so on, just nod politely and - unless you're aiming for a degree in historical linguistics - run. Though technically useful, working off the basis of these old categories requires in-depth knowledge of Old Irish... see what I mean?
Irregular nouns are just that, irregular, so you need to learn those. The ones you should learn off as soon as possible are: athair, bean, bó, bràthair, brù, cù, deoch, Dia, druim, duine, Éirinn, fear, fuil, leabaidh, mac, muir, piuthar, sgian, taigh, talamh. There are lots more, but those will do for starters.
Your best bets are special endings (in the singular) which take fixed plurals.
With a masculine noun ending in -ach, the plural normally is -aich:
- balach » balaich
- boireannach » boireannaich
Watch out for some masculine nouns like cladach which break that pattern and have a plural like cladaichean. But on the whole, it's relatively safe to assume (bearing in mind the next paragraph applies) that a noun in -ach is a) masculine and b) will have an -aich plural.
You must watch out for a small number of feminine nouns which end in -ach, for example, làrach » làraichean. On the bright side, their plural forms are fairly regular so if you know the gender, it's fairly safe to go for -aichean if the noun is feminine:
- làrach » làraichean
- gruagach » gruagaichean
Ignoring the issue of gender for the moment... OK, fine, not ignoring the issue of gender. The rule of thumb is that words which end in -(e)achd which are one syllable long (e.g. achd, smachd...) tend to be masculine. Those which are two or more syllables long are mainly all feminine (e.g. mòrachd, Gàidhealtachd...).
On the bright side, they all take <-an as their plural:
- achd » achdan
- feachd » feachdan
- éifeachd » éifeachdan
-(e)adh and -idh
These are nice. They're mainly all masculine and virtually all take -(a)idhean as a plural if the word consists of noun + adh, meaning that they must have two syllables, at least:
- atharrachadh » atharrachaidhean
- moladh » molaidhean
Irrespective of their gender, although most are masculine, words ending in -idh also behave like that:
- ainmhidh » ainmhidhean
- aghaidh » aghaidhean
- bàillidh » bàillidhean
If you have a feminine noun with the diminutive ending -(e)ag, then the plural will always be -an:
- caileag » caileagan
- marag » maragan
- cuileag » cuileagan
Careful, there are some masculine nouns which look like they have a diminutive ending -(e)ag at the end, in particular aiseag, but that's not a diminutive ending. Usually, the plural is still -(e)an (» aiseagan) but the other case markings will obviously be different, so you have feminine a' chaileag, air a' chaileig, aois na caileige versus masculine an t-aiseag, air an aiseag, aois an aiseig.
Also fairly predictably, words ending in -eal add -an for the plural:
- caisteal » caistealan
- inneal » innealan
As usual, there are exceptions, most notably perhaps aingeal which changes to ainglean.
These are agentive endings. Bits that you stick onto another noun to show that someone makes or does something, like -er in English which gives you fish » fisher, wash » washer, clean » cleaner, and so on. The plural of these is almost invariably -(e)an:
- iasg » iasgair » iasgairean
- clach » clachair » clachairean
- saighdear » saighdearan
- cluich » cluicheadair » cluicheadairean
- mara » maraiche » maraichean
Careful, this only works if the noun is made up of a noun plus an ending. There are some feminine nouns which aren't "composed" like that which behave differently. As a general rule, if you take away the ending, and what you're left with doesn't make sense, then it's not one of these. For example, with cathair and nathair, if you remove the -air, you're left with cath and nath and which don't make sense because cath and nath don't carry any related meaning on their own. So, it's not nath+air, but just one word. See the next section for more examples.
-air and -ir
If the -air at the end is not the doer/maker ending, then the noun is usually feminine and syncopates its plural. I'll explain that some other time, in detail. In short, syncopating means that you lose a syllable so the plural is -raichean:
- nathair » nathraichean
- màthair » màthraichean
- acair » acraichean
- litir » litrichean
If you have a masculine noun ending in the diminutive ending -(e)an, then plurals are normally restricted to either -ain/-ein or -an. Those are hard to predict, but if in doubt, you're usually better going with -an.
- balachan » balachain
- corran » corrain
- cuman » cumain
- cuilean » cuileanan
- ballan » ballanan
These are nice. Almost all take -an as the plural:
- solas » solasan
- carthannas » carthannasan
The fly in the ointment is doras which is usually dorsan in the plural.
Let's say there's a tendency for words ending in -th to have -an as a plural:
- guth » guthan
- gath » gathan
- gaoth » gaothan
Bùth can take bùthan as the plural but bùithtean is more common.
If the noun in question is sipping Singapore Sling, you need to step away from the screen, take a deep breath and do something else for a while. OK, OK. What I meant to say is that some plurals can be excluded on the basis of gender. For example, almost all nouns which slenderise for plural without adding a suffix (e.g. balach » balaich, bòrd » bùird) are masculine. So, if you have a noun and you're pretty sure it's feminine, then in almost all cases you must stick an ending on to show the plural.
A lot of loanwords go for -(a)ichean in the plural:
- càr » càraichean
- bàr » bàraichean
- clas » clasaichean
Short and sweet
The other "pointer" is that nouns which do something really bizarre to the vowel (like bòrd » bùird) are a) all masculine and b) only one syllable long. So, a word like òran cannot have a plural that looks like ùirean or something like that. It's kinda obvious once you've realized this but it can help you cut down the number of options.
- ceann » cinn
- cat » cait
- fiadh » féidh
- ball » buill
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