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I am trying to find out why sheep has the plural sheep. I have found different explanations, such as, "it is because they were seen as uncountable, as in 'a herd of sheep'", "because it comes from German, which does not have the plural 's'" and that it is because it is a neutral Old English noun which does not change in the plural. Does anyone have the right explanation?

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Indeed, German does not have the plural -'s, just as English doesn't. German does have the plural -s, though. –  RegDwigнt Dec 2 '11 at 10:59
    
@RegDwightѬſ道: Typically, though, as the plural of imported words, rather than home-grown ones. –  Barrie England Dec 2 '11 at 11:09
    
I guess this is some old English declension that has been preserved in modern English. Is aircraft also an example? –  Giorgio Dec 2 '11 at 13:35
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There is the web comic Count your sheep, whose title is based on this fact. (It's about a single sheep which gets counted.) –  Paŭlo Ebermann Dec 2 '11 at 17:27
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Singular "Schaf" and plural "Schafe" in German. In Swedish both are "får". –  starblue Dec 2 '11 at 18:38
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2 Answers

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, 'The prehistoric plural *skǣpu normally lost its final vowel in Old English, so that nominative and accusative singular and plural became identical.'

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+1 for the info; +1 for the reference is still due from me. –  Kris Dec 2 '11 at 11:07
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There was old English in the prehistoric era? –  Peter Olson Dec 2 '11 at 16:17
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@PeterOlson: A pre-Old English plural *skǣpu lost its vowel in Old English. (But anyway, "the prehistoric era" isn't a single thing: "prehistoric" means "before (written) history", so "the prehistoric era" ended at different times in different places.) –  ruakh Dec 2 '11 at 16:25
    
The asterisk indicates a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred. –  Barrie England Dec 2 '11 at 16:38
    
@PeterOlson: Something can be prehistoric if its origin is prehistoric: it can still be in use after prehistoric times. Just as a 19th-century house can still exist today. –  Cerberus Feb 1 '12 at 4:59
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Goose comes from an ancient Germanic word that underwent a process called "mutation" or "umlaut". When it was made plural, an /i/ or /j/ sound was added, causing the tongue to rise in preparation for making that sound, and changing the "oo" to "ee". Foot/feet and tooth/teeth show this same result. However, these changes took place thousands of years ago.

Moose is a Native American word, added to the word stock of the English language during the past four hundred years. By that time plurals were created in English simply by adding an -s­ or, in this case, when we are speaking of an animal used for food (deer/deer, sheep/sheep, fish/fish), no inflection at all in the plural.

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protected by Jasper Loy Jul 11 '12 at 11:39

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