Forming Plurals in Manipuri Language

James Oinam *

Manipuri is one of the languages that do not have distinct independent plural words. Plurals are implied by use of numbers beside the singular nouns or by putting some modifying words next to the singular nouns. Take the word 'meeyam' for example. It seems to be a compound word 'mee' + 'mayam' (a lot of/many mee). 'Mee' is singular word for man.

Most of the common nouns are basically singular in nature:
Ei sha natte, ei mee ni. (I am not an animal, I am a human being.)

In the sentence above, the common nouns sha (animal) and mee (human being) are obviously singular.

Numbers, more than one, are used with the common singular nouns to indicate a plural case:
Nupi ama lairik pari. (A girl is reading.)
Nupi ani lairik pari. (Two girls are reading.)

The above sentences show how the common noun nupi (girl/woman) is may be used with numbers above one to form plural case. But when not specified, the common nouns seem to invariably indicate singular case. In the exclamation 'He nupa!'/'He nupi' (O' man/O' woman), unless otherwise specified, in Manipuri, one is talking about one man or one woman only.

Also, modifiers like 'khara' (a few) may be used with common noun such as mee to denote a few men, a plural case. T.C. Hudson, in The Meitheis, pointed out how plurals are formed by 'compounding' the singular nouns by adding some word or by using some modifying words.

For example, by adding khoi to the personal singular pronouns ei (Manipuri word for I), nung (for singular you), and ma (for he/she), their plural counterparts eikhoi (for we), nakhoi (for plural you), and makhoi (for they) are formed. This may be compared with Chinese, another language without true plurals. The word men is suffixed to singular pronouns to form plurals.

For example, when suffix men is added to singular pronoun wǒ (meaning I), plural wǒmen (meaning we) is formed. Contrast these with the English plural they, which is clearly not a derivative of he/she, but an independent word in its own right.

As Hudson has pointed out, another way to form plurals in Manipuri language is to use the modifier word sing. But the use is limited for people and is meant for definite group. It seems the word sing functions like the English definite article the.

Consider the following sentence:
Nupa sing-na lau khoi. (The man tills the field.)

Due to the presence of the word sing, we know that we are talking about more than one man. But the word nupa is singular. In the corresponding English translation also, the noun is singular, but more than one man is implied due to the definite article. Just like one of the usages of the definite article, the word sing helps us to talk about a class, which is not quantified, not even broadly. The compound phrase nupa sing is equally good for few men (nupa 'khara') and many men (nupa 'mayam').

For animals and things, the copula word 'shi' (which is also used as demonstrative pronoun this) seems to perform this function:
Hui shi mapu khangba jeeba-ni. (The dog is an animal that knows its master.)

The noun hui (singular word for dog) does not need the modifier sing to refer to them as a class (although adding sing would also be correct grammatically). I think some kind of respect is implied in the use of sing, which is lacking in the copula shi, hence, its importance when referring to people.

To form plurals of particular noun groups (of people), nakhoi (you all) or makhaie (probably derived from makhoi, they) are used as nouns with the required singular nouns as adjectives: nupa nakhoi/makhaie (you all men (gender-specific)), agnang nakhoi/makhaie (you all children).

As ma (he or she) has no polite counterpart unlike nung (you, which has polite counterpart adom), the derivative nakhoi is not very polite. Hence, in formal conversations, to show respect, nupa/nupi makhaie is preferable to nupa/nupi nakhoi (to say 'you all men' or 'you all women').

* James Oinam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on August 15, 2017.

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