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As someone who has watched a lot of subtitled Japanese animation, it seems odd to hear a word such as ninja (used in the plural) in the dialogue and see it transliterated as ninjas.

It somehow seems better to me to treat ninja just like antelope, bison, buffalo, caribou, deer, elk, fish, grouse, quail, reindeer, sheep, swine, etc., which are both singular and plural.

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I don't think the ninja will be happy when you treat him like a sheep. –  Hugo Oct 27 '11 at 15:37
    
As someone who is posting on an English usage site, it is a good idea to avoid dangling modifiers. –  Malvolio Aug 31 '12 at 19:35
    
@Gary: Are you asking specifically about American English as some of the answers seem to assume? Or all English? –  hippietrail Oct 5 '12 at 3:53
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6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Would you also insist that Japanese speakers pluralize English words when used in the plural?

Once a word has been borrowed into a language, it adheres to the grammar for normal words in that language. We don't borrow Japanese grammar, just words, so there is no need to use a zero plural with borrowed Japanese words.

It is true there is a small set of animal nouns in English that have a zero plural, but they are not borrowed and are a special case.

This is borne out by the results in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which has 68 incidences of "ninjas". Of the 496 incidences of "ninja", there are a handful of uses of "ninja" as a zero plural, as OP suggests, from the script for the 2003 film The Last Samurai, but the vast majority are singular (or attributive) usage. So it does appear that zero-plural "ninja" is used, albeit uncommonly so.

So yes, ninja meaning ninjas is a usage that gets some use, but regular pluralized ninjas is more common, and perfectly grammatical.

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The first sentence of your answer makes a good point. –  Gary Aug 12 '10 at 23:04
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In New Zealand English though, there is a big thing about not pluralising words that have been borrowed from Māori. For instance, a lot of publications will say "5 kiwi" instead of "5 kiwis", or "5 tui" instead of "5 tuis". Personally, I hate adhering to rules from other languages when speaking English, so I always pluralise them. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 14 '10 at 1:08
    
@Vincent: that reminds me of this question. –  RegDwigнt Dec 30 '10 at 14:05
    
@Vincent: with the big difference that Māori is an official language of NZ! –  nico Sep 1 '11 at 6:36
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"Insisting" has nothing to do with it. It implies that there are people in charge of how English ought to be spoken, like French has an Academy. There quite simply is nobody in a position of authority to insist. People with completely different views on the topic can insist one way or the other all they want and they're unlikely to have much influence over the English-speaking world. The best we can do is observe how people use English, as you have done with Contemporary American English. Ninjas does seem right. Kanjis and yens seems wrong, to me, but other people do use those forms. –  hippietrail Oct 5 '12 at 9:36
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English has always had zero plurals as one of many types of irregular plural along with the regular plurals. For both borrowed and native words. So do related languages including German.

Neither transliteration nor Romance has a lot to do with it since we have nouns with both regular and irregular plural forms borred from Romance languages and other languages in the same alphabet and other alphabets.

In the case of ninja, it comes from Japanese and Japanese like many languages does not inflect for plural. Others are Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and all Polynesian languages including Hawaiian and Maori.

For Japanese it seems to relate to how maintream a borrowed word has become in Enlgish. If it doesn't yet have wide currency or refers to something exotic it has a higher chance of retaining the Japanese (zero) plural. Here are some English words borrowed from Japanese in their plural form the way I say them, others may disagree:

  • anime (though animes doesn't sound wrong)
  • bonsai (perhaps uncountable in English)
  • futons (never futon)
  • geisha sounds better than geishas to me
  • hibachi isn't common in Australia but I assume Americans say hibachis
  • judo doesn't have a plural
  • kabuki (never kabukis)
  • kanji sounds right to me - I always cringe when I read kanjis
  • karaoke (perhaps uncountable in English)
  • karate doesn't have a plural
  • kimonos sounds better than plural kimono to me
  • manga (perhaps uncountable in English)
  • miso is definitely uncountable in English
  • origami (perhaps uncountable in English)
  • otakus sounds better than otaku as a plural to me but this word hasn't gained much currency in English as yet
  • ramen (never ramens)
  • sake is uncountable in English
  • samurai sounds slightly better than samurais to me
  • sashimi (never sashimis)
  • shiatsu (has no plural in English)
  • shinkansens sounds wrong but so does plural shinkansen!
  • shinto doesn't have a plural
  • sumo doesn't have a plural
  • sushi (never sushis)
  • tempura seems to be uncountable in English
  • tofu (never tofus)
  • torii (never toriis, has a similar form to some Latin plurals)
  • tsunamis (never tsunami)
  • wasabi is uncountable in English
  • yakuza (though yakuzas doesn't sound wrong)
  • yen (never yens, which is another one which makes me cringe when I hear it)
  • zen (has no plural)
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"Never tsunamis"? The Wikipedia article Tsunami has 43 instances of "tsunamis"! –  Neil Bartlett Dec 30 '10 at 23:44
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"giesha" is misspelt. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 13 '13 at 11:01
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Although sudoku is derived from Japanese, it isn't a Japanese word. If you talk to a Japanese about sudoku they won't understand you. (Trust me, I've tried.) By a curious symmetry, the Japanese word for sudoku is namupure, which is derived from the English words number and play. –  Pitarou Jan 13 '13 at 11:21
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I think the pattern is that English speakers pluralize with an "S" when in doubt, and some of the plurals that sound doubtful in English end in "A" or "I". As another example, I hear "schemas" on a daily basis, but never heard "schemata" except when I tried it myself a few times.

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In regular (esp., tech.) usage, schemas and schemata have different meanings and are both considered correct. –  Kris Oct 5 '12 at 4:32
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We do this all the time with Latin and Greek loan-words in English. (The former is technically not a Romance language, but rather the progenitor of them.)

e.g. Octupus -> Octopodes (Greek), when we typically use "Octopuses"

e.g. Peninsula -> Peninsulae (Latin), when we typically use "Peninsulas"

There are many, many more examples, in particular of Latin origin.

Generally, because these words have been around so long in the language, we anglicise their plural forms, rather than keeping the originals, out of convenience (ignorance?). Some will always insist to use the original Latin/Greek plurals, of course. With more recent loan-words, it is more common to keep the plural form of the original language.

My view is that we should use the plural form of the source language when known/in common use, and anglicise the word by adding -s or -es otherwise. Each to their own, however.

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Incorrect pluralization can also happen when the original language is mistaken. I think "octopi" is pretty well accepted too, even though there's no reason for it to follow latin grammar! –  Andrew Vit Aug 12 '10 at 21:22
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Yeah, though that's a much rarer case. 'Octopi' is much worse than 'octopuses' in my view, as it betrays ignorance rather than convenience/consistency. –  Noldorin Aug 12 '10 at 21:28
    
+1, good answer. –  Adam Mosheh Jul 6 '12 at 14:59
    
Are we to treat 'incorrect' pluralization as another word in the dictionary? Can it justify other similar errors? –  Kris Oct 5 '12 at 4:34
    
@hippietrail: It looks like you misread the post, I'm afraid. I'm clearly stating Latin is not a romance language, but rather the ancestor of them -- via Vulgar Latin, of course. –  Noldorin Oct 5 '12 at 11:03
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It's interesting that hippietrail refers to anime as an English word borrowed from Japanese, because anime is actually a secondhand loanword: Japanese borrowed the passé composé form of the French verb animer (spelled animé) to describe animation, for which there was no appropriate verb in Japanese. And so, English speakers are actually using a French verb to describe a Japanese noun.

And so, for me, the plural animes sounds perfectly natural in English.

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Actually like most words, anime has an even longer and slightly more complex history still. It evolved into the French word from its Latin ancestor, ultimately a form of animō, and Latin in turn inherited it in prehistory. We have reconstructed the ancestor as *h₂én in what these days we refer to as Proto-Indo-European. But nobody would say English speakers are actually using a Proto-Indo-European word. –  hippietrail Oct 5 '12 at 4:02
    
Good point. Though more in the nature of a comment than an answer to the question. –  Kris Oct 5 '12 at 4:37
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Perhaps it depends on one's proximity to Japanese language and culture in everyday life. For E-J bilinguals, whether in Tokyo or LA, it is perfectly acceptable to avoid inflecting Japanese loanwords in English, especially in a code-switching context. However, the farther one travels from the Japanophonic (and Japanophilic) world, the more loanwords are moved from the "do not inflect" column to the "do inflect" column.

This is an organic, crowd-sourced process, not a hard-and-fast rule. Whereas Webster pluralizes kimono as kimonos, Wiktionary offers both inflected and uninflected plurals (kimono or kimonos). Webster has no right to take my kimono off, no matter how many of them I may be wearing! :-P

In response to the rhetorical counterexample of whether Japanese speakers should pluralize foreign loanwords, I have seen this occur in E-J code-switching contexts. Also, there is the annoying example of takosu (tacos), which has no singular form in Japanese, perhaps because tako is already the Japanese word for another popular food, octopus. Takosu-wo hitotsu kudasai! (One tacos, please!) Arrgh.

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