Posted by: ayac | October 18, 2014

Plurals as singulars

In the Tepiman branch of Uto-Aztecan, also known as Pimic, plurals are usually marked by partial reduplication (also used to a lesser extent in other Uto-Aztecan languages). E.g. the plural of Tohono O’odham ban ‘coyote’ is ba:ban. Though in some cases sound change can make things slightly obscure; e.g. the plural of wuhi ‘eye’ (< *pusi) is wu:pui (< *pu:pusi).

But there are a number of cases where the singular form shows reduplication too, mostly referring to small animals and plants. What seems to have happened is that these things were spoken of in the plural so much more frequently than the singular that the singular completely fell out of use, and the plural came to be thought of as the basic form of the lexeme. Some examples (note that the reconstructions are approximate and aren’t meant to accurately represent Proto-Uto-Aztecan):

*kʷaya ‘frog’ > Nahuatl cueya-tl : Tohono O’odham babad; N Tepehuan babááda-i
*paka ‘reed’ > Nahuatl āca-tl : Tohono O’odham wa:pk; N Tepehuan vaapáka-i; SE Tepehuan baapak
*sawa ‘leaf’ > Nahuatl izhua-tl : Tohono O’odham ha:hag; N Tepehuan áága-i; SE Tepehuan jaaja’
*tamV ‘tooth’ > Nahuatl tlan-tli : Tohono O’odham ta:tamĭ; N Tepehuan taatámu-i; SE Tepehuan taatam
*tsana ‘a kind of bird’ > Nahuatl tzana-tl ‘grackle’ : Tohono O’odham ṣaṣañ(ĭ) ‘blackbird; dwarf cowbird’
*ʔatɨ ‘louse’ > Huichol ʼaté : Tohono O’odham ʼa:ʼac; N Tepehuan áátɨ-i; SE Tepehuan aʼaat

In some cases the reduplicated form is used as both singular and plural (e.g. ha:hag is both ‘leaf’ and ‘leaves’), in others a new plural is formed by reduplicating it a second time (the plural of babad is babbad). The unreduplicated form may survive in compounds or derivatives (e.g. hagpig ‘remove leaves’).

Something similar may have happened in Nahuatl, to a similar class of words, albeit less consistently.

Nahuatl inherited two plural suffixes, *-mɨ and *-tɨ, which are used both on their own and in combination (sometimes accompanied by partial reduplication). The following description is based primarily on Classical Nahuatl, but should mostly be true for other dialects as well:

*-mɨ > Nahuatl -n (Pochutec -m), used with:

  • possessed nouns (which end in -huā-n),
  • personal pronouns (e.g. tehhuān ‘we’),
  • numerals (e.g. nāhuin ‘four’),
  • quantifiers (e.g. cequīn ‘some’),
  • probably some verb forms (although I don’t fully understand them),
  • and the unusual word huēi ‘big’, which has the plural is huehhuēin.

*-tɨ > Nahuatl -h (Pipil and Pochutec -t), used with:

  • some nouns referring to humans and animals (e.g. cōcoyoh ‘coyotes’),
  • agentive nouns in -c/-qui/-Ø (e.g. ichtecqueh ‘thieves’),
  • and most verbs (e.g. tiquittah ‘we see it’).

*-tɨ-mɨ > Nahuatl -tin, used (at least in Classical) with almost all nouns whose stem ends in a consonant, and very rarely nouns that end in vowels. (Also, in Classical Nahuatl, words ending in -n other than verbs and possessed nouns get -tin added to make a triple plural -ntin.)

*-mɨ-tɨ > Nahuatl -meh (Pipil -met), used with almost all nouns that end in vowels, and sometimes some that end in consonants.

But besides those -n plurals, there are also nouns that end in -n in the singular, instead of the expected -tl absolutive suffix. The vast majority end in -in, though a few end in -an, and in Pochutec, they end in -m. And they almost all refer to small animals and plants. Some examples:

capolin ‘cherry’
chapolin ‘grasshopper’
cītlalin ‘star’
cuetzpalin ‘lizard’
michin ‘fish’ (Pochutec michom)
ocuilin ‘worm’ (Pochutec uglom)
quimichin ‘mouse’
tamazolin ‘toad’
tōchin ‘rabbit’
tōlin ‘cattail’
tēxcan ‘bedbug’
tōzan ‘gopher’

It’s tempting to think that this -n is the same as the one that marks the plural, and that these words are historical plurals that have become singulars, like in the reduplicated Tepiman words above. There’s not a whole lot of direct evidence for it, and there’s still a few issues left unexplained, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

The Nahuatl reflex of *ʔatɨ ‘louse’ is atemitl, rather than simply ×atetl. This could be explained as a plural-turned-singular *ʔatɨmɨ, that got the absolutive suffix added to it prior to the loss of final vowels. If you accept that explanation, it attests to the existence of singulars ending in *-mɨ in an earlier stage of the language, which could have developed into the attested singulars in -n. (And if you don’t accept it, it’s not like there’s any other explanation for where atemitl comes from.) One could speculate that other words ending in -mitl might have a similar origin (Otomitl?).

Then there’s *tɨpu ‘flea’, whose Nahuatl reflex is tecpin. This would seem to be from a reduplicated plural *tɨtɨpumɨ, which strengthens the interpretation of -n as a reflex of the plural suffix, rather than from some other *-mV morpheme. The singular of *tɨpu ‘flea’ also survives with diminutive suffixes as tepitōn and tepitzin, both of which mean ‘small thing’.

EDIT (2016-01-05): A few additional pieces of evidence.

1) Nahuatl tzahtzapalin ‘mojarra (a kind of fish)’ corresponds to Huichol sáapa and Cora tzaajpua. As with ‘flea’, plurality is marked not just by -n, but also by partial reduplication. -li- and -chi- are diminutive suffixes, here and in most of the above examples.

2) The plural of -in is usually -tin (< *-tɨ-mɨ) in Classical Nahuatl. But some modern varieties have -imeh, and this form is also rarely found in Classical. I don’t believe this is from -in + -meh; some varieties simplify nasal clusters, but not all of them, and there is no evidence of a cluster here at all. Instead, I think the suffix is simply -h (< *-tɨ), and adding it prevented the preceding vowel from being deleted. The same phenomenon is seen in the past/agentive -c, -que-h (< *-kā, *-kā-tɨ), the word ‘is/are’ cah, cate-h (< *katɨ, *katɨ-tɨ), etc. (This only proves what shape the earlier forms of -n had, but it doesn’t prove that it was a plural. However I don’t think the similarity between -meh and -imeh is a coincidence.)



  1. This is really interesting! Karen Dakin was suggesting the other day that nouns in -mitl shared a meaning of something formed in rows. I think this is a much better way to account for what seems to be shared semantics of -mitl nouns referring to things that tend to come in quantities. Excellent argument.

  2. I am going to cite this blog post in an article I am writing. If you want me to cite you under your real name as “personal communication” instead of as “Ayac” then please let me know by email (contact me through my own blog).

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