Expressing plurality in Japanese: the full story

By | January 13, 2020

Unlike the “-s” suffix in English, Japanese doesn’t have an all-purpose way to make words plural. But that doesn’t mean there are no plural words in Japanese; in fact, there are quite a few, and a few patterns that are helpful to learn. In this post I want to talk about expressing plurality in Japanese and some related topics.

Plurality Basics and Qualifiers

The first thing you need to know is that most words in Japanese are neither plural nor singular. So りんご (ringo) can mean “apple” or “apples”. However, depending on the context it is often clear whether we are talking about one or more than one thing.

  • りんごがある (ringo ga aru)
  • There is an apple.

In this simple sentence, it is pretty obvious that we are talking about a single apple. If we wanted to express more than one of something, generally a qualifier should be used:

  • りんごがいくつかある (ringo ga ikutsuka aru)
  • There are a few apples.

Notice that in English we have to change the verb tense and add the “-s” suffix to the noun itself, whereas in Japanese neither of these transformations occurs.

The qualifier いくつか can apply to any type of countable object. However, as you probably know Japanese tends to use specific counter suffixes for object categories, like ひき (hiki) for small animals or さつ (satsu) for books. If you want to express more than one of an object using its appropriate counter, there are three different patterns you can use:

  • 数 + counter  (ex: 数冊 “suusatsu”)
  • 何 + counter + か (ex: 何冊か “nansatsuka”)
  • 何 + counter + も (ex: 何冊も “nansatsumo”)

These all mean “several”, but 何冊も has a feeling of more than 何冊か.

By the way, you can also add the qualifier before the noun, as in “いくつかりんごがある”. This has the nuance of treating the units as a group. I remember a good example I read once in a textbook was that the movie title “七人の侍” (Seven Samurai) was used because it was about a specific group of samurai. If you aren’t sure which to use I would generally stick with a separate qualifier (like in “りんごいくつかある”)

Special Cases

One special case when we would use a “-s” in English but no qualifier is required in Japanese is when talking in general about an object. For example:

  • が大好きです (hon ga daisuki desu)
  • I love books.

Here, 本 doesn’t refer to any specific set of books, but rather books in general. If you wanted to refer to a specific book you would use a word like その or この (ex: この本 = “that book”).

Another special case is talking about a lack of existence. In English the “-s” suffix is used in this case, but in Japanese there is no qualifier or anything else needed. Just use a negative verb of existence with the regular form of the noun.

  • ガラスがない (garasu ga nai)
  • There are no glasses.

Depending on the context, like if someone was searching for a specific glass, this can be translated as “There is no glass”.

Special-purpose Suffixes

Japanese doesn’t have a general suffix for plurality, but it does have a few ones that apply in limited cases. One common one is 〜たち (~tachi), which is generally used for people. This can be written in kanji as 達 but is most often written in hiragana.

  • 子供たちが喜んでいる (kodomotachi ga yorokonde iru)
  • The children are delighted.

In this case, since we are using ~tachi, we don’t need any qualifier like 数人 (“suunin”, a few people).

One place where ~tachi is often used is in first, second, and third-person pronouns:

  • 僕たち (bokutachi): us/we
  • 君たち (kimitachi): you all
  • 女たち (onnatachi): they (women)

You can also use ~tachi for animals: 犬たち (dogs), etc.

I have occasionally seen ~tachi even used for inanimate objects (ex: 本たち (books)), but I wouldn’t consider this a common usage and don’t recommend it.

You probably know the word 友達 (tomodachi), but even though this contains the -tachi ending, it should be considered a normal noun (like 友人, which also means “friend”). You can technically add a second -tachi, yielding 友達たち, but while I have seen that used before, I have also seen discussions about its correctness/naturalness.

Another common suffix is 〜ら (~ra), which is expressed most often in hiragana instead of kanji (等). Like -tachi, -ra is often used with words related to people:

  • 彼ら (karera): they/them (male *)
  • 俺ら (orera): I  
  • 僕ら (bokura): I

(*Note: before the Meiji era, “karera” was used to describe both males and females.)

However, you should be aware that for some words it is more natural to use one of these suffixes. For example, “karera” is much more commonly used than “karetachi”. I’ve never heard “waretachi” used before (“warera” is typical). Also, “kimitachi” is more natural than “kimira”. To me, the “-ra” suffix has a slight masculine nuance to it, possibly because of the rough sound it makes. The fact that “Bokura” and “Orera” are much more common than “Atashira” is consistent with that.

If you aren’t sure which of these two suffixes to use for people, I recommend sticking with -tachi as it has more wider use.

Another Way to Express Plurality

There is another technique used in Japanese to express plurality, though it only works for some words (generally shorter ones) and tends to have a literary nuance to it. This is to use the word twice, as a compound word. For example,

  • 綺麗な家々が並んでる  (kirei na ieie ga narande iru)
  • Beautiful houses are lined up. (Less literal but more natural = “There is a line of beautiful houses.”)

Note that the iteration mark (々) is used here to signify repeating the previous character, so 家々 means 家家. In modern Japanese, the iteration mark is almost always used in words like this.

When a word is repeated like this to represent plural, oftentimes the second instance will change pronunciation due to an effect called “rendaku” (see this post for more details):

  • 木々がたくさん倒れてる (kigi ga takusan taoreteru)
  • Many trees had fallen over.

In most, if not all cases, you could simply use the normal form of the word and the grammar would be correct and natural sounding, like “木がたくさん倒れてる”.

Besides representing plural, repeating a word twice can also have the nuance of “each and every…”

  • 一人一人悲しそうな顔をしていた。(hitori hitori kanashisou na kao wo shite ita)
  • Each (and every) person had a sad expression.

The word それぞれ (sorezore), which comes from two instances of “sore” (“that”) put together, is a generic word for “each”.

  • それぞれ趣味が違う (hito sorezore shumi ga chigau)
  • Each person has different tastes.

But again, beware that you cannot use this pattern for arbitrary words. For example, saying “車々が高い” would be very awkward in spoken language, and I have never seen it used in a book either. Also, when speaking in general terms, or talking about a lack of existence, you wouldn’t use these types of words:

  • 木々はない    => sounds a little unnatural, prefer はない
  • 木々が好き  => sounds a little unnatural, prefer が好き

Plurality and Loanwords

Japanese has a large number of loanwords, many of them from English. There are some quirks related to plurality and loanwords that I wanted to mention here.

First of all, nouns that are loanwords generally follow the same rules as above, meaning words like セーター (“sweater”) can be used both as singular or pleura. Even when we would say “sweaters” in English, we would still use セーター in Japanese. Furthermore, loanwords that describe people can use the “-tachi” ending to express plurality, for example マスターたち.

Japanese has many loanwords from English that sound like they are plural, but should be treated like normal Japanese nouns that can be singular or plural. The reason is that it is impossible to accurately reproduce the sound of English words that end in a “t” sound (ex: “suit”), so the end of the word often changes to a “tsu” sound instead in a rough approximation of the “t” sound. Here are a few examples,

  • スーツ (suutsu): “suit” or “suits”
  • フルーツ (furuutsu): “fruit” or “fruits”
  • シャツ (shatsu): “shirt” or “shirts”
  • バケツ (baketsu): “bucket” or “buckets”

In rare cases, the letter ず (or ズ) can be used at the end of certain words or names to express plurality. For example, シティタワーズ豊洲 (City Towers Toyosu) is a high rise apartment building. Another example is the name おすなばのりものーず (Sandbox Vehicles) which involves tacking a ず onto a Japanese word, something that is similarly rare. This is the name for a set of toys from one of Benesse’s distance learning program for kids. By the way I’ve observed there is an above-average amount of English integrated into their educational materials, perhaps because the target audience is children who are living outside of Japan.

Final Thoughts

Finally, if you want to get technical, the word for “plural” or “multiple” in Japanese is 複数 (fukusuu). But this isn’t used too often in everyday conversation.

  • この質問には複数の正解があります。 (kono shitsumon ni wa fukusuu no seikai ga arimasu)
  • This question has multiple correct answers.

The plural form of a word (like “dogs”) is expressed using the word 複数形 (fukusuukei).

(Image: a photograph of last name stamps (判子, hanko) that I took at a store.)

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One thought on “Expressing plurality in Japanese: the full story

  1. NoxArt

    Hi, nice article, it confirmed some things that I only intuited but wasn’t sure if that it’s really like that.

    I heard たち should be used only for those of equal/lower status and that there’s also -方, that seems like something important/that would useful to include into an article like this (if you agree with what I heard)

    Reply

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