While the first entry of this series was very much centered around etymology with a bit of phonetics, today’s article is about pure grammar. We are going to dive deep into the plural formation in Catalan- more specifically the N-stem inflection and how this can be attributed to the influence of Gothic.
Pretty much like other neighbouring Romance languages, such as Spanish, French or Occitan, Catalan forms the plural by adding the ending -s. Tweak this rule a little bit depending on the gender of the word, -(o)s for masculine and -es for feminine, and voilà- the Catalan plural explained. Well, partially.
Catalan plural nouns are not that simple, they can end in either a consonant or a vowel. When the word ends in a consonant, the plural can be easily formed my adding -(o)s or -es, like I just explained.
bosc [bɔsk] → boscs [bɔsks] / boscos [‘bɔskus]
gat [gat] → gats (m.) [gats] / gates (f.) [‘gatəs]
When the word ends in a vowel, however, this is not as simple. There are only three options, though: its plural will be formed be adding either -s or -ns, and if it ends in -a, it will sometimes become -es. Not many options at first sight, but the difficulty is knowing which one to use, since these don’t follow any rules seeminlgly. Or do they?
pa [pa] → pans [pans]
avi [‘aβi] → avis [‘aβis]
home [‘ɔmə] → homes [‘ɔməs] / hòmens [‘ɔməns]
orgue [‘ɔrɣə] → òrguens [‘ɔrɣəns]
cua [kuə] → cues [cuəs]
Well, there is a rule: if a female noun ends in an unstressed -a, its plural will become -es, rather than just -s. With exceptions, obviously.
When it comes to the endings -s and -ns, there are no reliable rules but there are some patterns. The most obvious one is how words with an etymological /n/ are likely to keep the /n/ in the plural. A second pattern we can observe is how words with -ns tend to be stressed on their last syllable most of the times, but not only.
And that’s it. Really. There’s not much to it. One must just learn by heart how these words form their plural. But as you might have already guessed, this article is not a guide on how to form plurals in Catalan. This is going to be a long dissection, step by step, of this very fascinating feature of the Catalan language.
I’ll start by pointing out how unique the N-stem plural formation is amongst all Romance languages. The feature is actually unique to Catalan, as it’s not found in any other Romance language.
Now, some of you might be thinking about French and how you don’t pronounce the final -n sounds. Isn’t that the same phenomenon? While the short answer is no, it isn’t, I will actually use this comparison to French to further explain the N-stem plural and its uniqueness.
French has its own ways of creating the plural, but we’ll focus on how words that end in a silent -n, like pain and main, are dealt with.
Words with that type of ending form their plural by just adding -s, like pains and mains. It is very important to note how the /n/ in singular is not pronounced. Nor is the plural one. Actually, not even the new ending -s is pronounced.
pain [pɑ̃] → pains [pɑ̃]
main [mɑ̃] → mains [mɑ̃]
We can see how, what was once a nasal sound has been assimilated into the preceding vowel sound, creating a nasalised vowel. The grapheme /n/ is nothing more than an etymological remnant. Keeping it is actually useful to indicate the preceding vowel has to be nasalised but aside from that it does not serve any other phonological purpose- and less even, a gramatical one, since it doesn’t even mark the plural, the -s does.
The comparison of the French silent -ns in pains to the Catalan plural -ns of pans is something akin to comparing the English silent gh in thought to the German ch in dachte. Etymologically related but nothing else.
Returning to the Catalan N-stem plurals, one must make a clear distinction between words whose stem already contains an ending -n, in which case their plural will be formed by adding -s, and those whose ending is a vowel sound but form the plural by adding -ns.
Regular Plural Formation: àton [‘atun] → àtons [‘atuns]
N-Stem Plural Formation: orfe [‘ɔrfə] → òrfens [‘ɔrfəns]
I have been using mostly Latin-based examples so far, but let’s also not ignore the fact that we can find the N-stem plural in both Latin and Germanic words:
sà [sa] → sans [sans] (Lat. sanum)
raó [rə‘o] → raons [rə‘ons] (Lat. rationem)
veí [bə‘i] → veïns [bə‘ins] (Lat. vicinu)
ufà [u‘fa] → ufans [u‘fans] (Got. ufjo)
flascó [fləs‘ko] → flascons [fləs‘kons] (Got. flasko)
topí [tu‘pi] → topins [tu‘pins] (Ger. top)
It’s important to keep in mind that all these words had an /n/ somewhere etymologically, even if it’s not visible at first sight, like flasko, becoming flaskons in its nominative and accusative plural, for example.
A very important question related to this phenomenon would be about its origins. How old is this feature in the language? Well, taking a look at what is considered the oldest literary text in Catalan, the Homilies d’Organyà, dated from the Middle Ages, it does not take long to find the N-stem word inflection:
… e deus radrallsen bo gadardo perpetual a c. dobles et als bons et als mals del remedi dinfern e de la gloria de paradis.
… qi es cab de totz omens.
… qan li dix que fedes de la pedra pa.
We can observe words like omens and pa, that survived in today’s Catalan as hòmens and pa, but the biggest indicator of the existance of the N-stem plural formation is the word bo and its plural bons, that remained the same in today’s language. Although being an adjective, it follows the same plural formation pattern a noun would. Yeah, Catalan adjectives are also subject to the N-stem inflection:
bo [bɔ] → bona [bɔnə]
→ bons [bɔns] → bones [bɔns]
mitjà [mi‘ʤa] → mitjana [mi‘ʤanə]
→ mitjans [mi‘ʤans] → mitjanes [mi‘ʤanəs]
Around the Middle Ages, when the Homilies d’Organyà were written, Catalan was still developing its own identity as a separate language from Vulgar Latin. And, as talked about in the previous post of this series, the Gothic superstratum from the Visigothic people who invaded the land in the 5th Century was crucial in the shaping of the Catalan language. Simply put, the N-stem inflection must have been born somewhere between the Visigothic invasions and the Middle Ages.
Now, let’s take a look at the Gothic plural formation to try to find any parallels. You see, Gothic is a highly inflected language, like Latin, which means talking about plural formation might not be as easy as one thinks it should. However I’ll start by touching on the subject of what is called the N-stem declension of nouns.
Some nouns in Gothic would undergo this declension pattern of adding an /n/ to the stem. What this means is, words like guma or tuggo would become gumans and tuggons, respectively, in nominative and accusative plural.
I won’t talk about genitive and dative, since Catalan is not known to have taken endings from these cases of Latin and therefore there is no reason to believe it would have taken them from Gothic. An example of that would be amiga/amigues taken from the Latin amica (Nom. Sing.) and amicas (Acc. Pl.). But now, onto the Gothic examples:
guma [ɣuma] → gumans [ɣumans]
tuggo [tuŋɣo] → tuggons [tuŋɣons]
frodei [froði] → frodeins [froðins]
As we can see with these examples, the Gothic plural formation of these words is not just similar to that of Catalan, it is the same.
The N-stem nouns are also distributed into three declension groups: -a/-ans, -o/-ons and -i/-ins.
The first group, the -a/-ans group, included mostly- if not only- male and neuter nouns.
It is also worth mentioning how words ending in -us formed the accusative plural with -uns, although these do not belong to the same group as the aforementioned -a/-ans, -o/-ons and -i/-ins words:
sunus [sunus] → sununs [sununs]
Comparing all this to Catalan results in some strong correlations.
Catalan words with N-stem plurals end mostly in -a/-e, -o and i-. The -a/-e ending can be treated as the same due to the stressed/unstressed nature of the phonetics of the language. This first group, being formed by only masculine words (except the word mà/mans, which is feminine) also aligns too well to the Gothic paradigms. Don’t forget that neuter nouns were assimilated into the masculine gender in Catalan.
As Abelard Saragossà points out in Els Plurals amb una Consonant Nasal: Una Anàlisi Contrastiva, according to the Catalan Reverse Dictionary with Morphological Information by Mascaró/Rafel (1990), around 4000 words (24 pages) end in -ns, making this a very prominent feature of the language.
Some words ending in -é/-è and -ú can also form the plural by adding -ns, though the numbers are quite small, with approximately 10 for the former (not counting numerals and demonyms) and less than 20 for the latter.
The -ú ending could also be linked back to the gothic -us word inflection pattern. Though the small numbers would rather point towards an evolution by analogy.
The ending -é/-è is the only one that does not fit so perfectly into all of these, but it can still be easily explained as an evolution by hypercorrection or analogy in the spoken language that was later reflected in the written language due to (probably) unconscious attempts at keeping consistency in the language. If all vowel endings can form the plural with -ns, why should the ending -é/-è be an exception? And as mentioned above, outside of numerals and demonyms, this group is still extremely reduced.
And what about the adjectives? How did these come to be in Catalan? A very solid theory would be, adjectives ending in -n lost the sound by analogy to the plural formation of the nouns. Or we can just take a look at the Gothic declension of adjectives and realise that the /n/ played a role there as well. And it looks almost identical to the Catalan inflection of N-stem adjective, that doesn’t only pertain to plurals.
Gothic: midjis [midjis] → midjana [midjana] → midjans [midjans]
Catalan: mitjà [mi‘ʤa] → mitjana [mi‘ʤanə] → mitjans [mi‘ʤans]
Wrapping up now, I would like to come to some conclusions and present my opinion on the whole matter. And I want to say it very clearly, I do believe the N-stem inflection of Catalan has its roots in the Gothic N-stem declension.
The fact that this is a unique feature of the Catalan language amongst all Romance languages, makes it ever so bizarre how there aren’t any studies about its origins. Some dictionaries mention in some entries how words derived from their original Latin word, like mà did from manus. But never delve into why this change happened.
While the final /n/ could have naturally disappeared from singular nouns, the reason why it was still kept in some inflections, most notably the plural formation, as we have seen, remains a mystery.
If we take French for example- another Gallo-Romance language-, final /n/ sounds disappeared alongside most of all other consonants. And it did so in both singular and plural. This is a very common sound evolution, but again this is not the same phenomenon we see in Catalan.
If we look at the Gothic grammar we can find such strong parallels to Catalan. Even to the small details like the Gothic -a/-ans declension containing mostly male/neuter nouns, just like the Catalan -a/-ans group.
By assuming that the Catalan inflection comes from the Gothic one, we suddenly lose unexplainable inconsistencies, like singular nouns losing the /n/ but this one reappearing in the plural. Or why the groups -a(-e)/-ans, -ó/-ons and -i/-ins just so happen to be more prevalent than other vowel endings. We can even understand why it happens in adjectives.
It is not too far fetched to imagine the Gothic N-stem declension could have strongly influenced the grammar of the Vulgar Latin that would later become Catalan. Otherwise, we must accept that this feature of the Catalan language evolved this way just because, as an isolated phenomenon, and not only that, but that it happened very coincidentally during times of linguistic Gothic influence, a language with the literal same N-stem inflection feature.
And, to be honest, for two languages that were in contact to influence each other seems much more plausible than the stars having to align so perfectly.
- Sobre l'evolució fonològica de la llengua catalana a l'època dels orígens Philip D. Rasico, Vanderbilt University
- Origen i evolució de la llengua Catalana Joan C. Vidal
- Plurals amb una consonant nasal: Anàlisi contrastiva Abelard Saragossà, Valencia University
- Gothic Declension Wikipedia
- Catalan Grammar Wikipedia
- Homilies d'Organyà Transcription by Joaquim Miret i Sans
- Diccionari català-valencià-balear (DCVB)
- Catalan Reverse Dictionary with Morphological Information Mascaró/Rafel
- Gothic Dictionary with etymologies András Rajki