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In Greek and Latin, some cities, like Athens and Thebes, are pluralia tantum, that is, they are always plural. In English, on the other hand, both names are singular, at least in modern English. It has, however, been suggested that the English -s was originally a plural -s, as a loan translation of the Greek and Latin plurals. Do we have any reliable sources that confirm this? Does it apply to both Athens and Thebes?

The Oxford English Dictionary cannot help us because it does not (normally) list the full etymology of names, nor does Etymonline have etymologies that aren't in the Oxford.

In addition, it would be interesting to know if and when the English names were considered plural, and, if so, when they became singular.

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    Thebes is in OED, although Athens is not. Athenian is and mentions Athens in its etymology, but none of these entries indicates whether the English form was originally treated as a plural. – Andrew Leach Mar 14 '17 at 15:34
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    Do you mean to ask whether the phrase "Athens are the capital of Greece" was ever grammatically correct English, or something else? Sources aside, it should be noted that the names for Athens and Thebes in French, Spanish and German all have the markers for the plural of those respective languages, so it makes it overwhelmingly likely that the "s" in English also originates from being a marker for the plural (but if it was taken directly from the Greek/Latin then it may never have been used as a plural all the same). – Oosaka Mar 14 '17 at 15:38
  • @AndrewLeach♦: Right, but are those proper articles? Normally, in a proper article, the OED would explain more of the etymology of a word, right? – Cerberus Mar 14 '17 at 15:54
  • @RozennKeribin: That was exactly my thinking, so I was looking for a reliable source supporting this hypothesis. My additional question does indeed include your suggested question. – Cerberus Mar 14 '17 at 15:55
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Athens had also the singular version Athene during the Classic era.

Athens city of ancient Attica, capital of modern Greece, from Greek Athenai (plural because the city had several distinct parts).

While the city name was plural from the Classical period onward, Homer uses a singular form: Ἀθήνη (Athḗnē).

An example of singular Athene, from Odyssey 7.80, "Athens with its wide streets":

ὣς ἄρα φωνήσασ᾽ ἀπέβη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
πόντον ἐπ᾽ ἀτρύγετον, λίπε δὲ Σχερίην ἐρατεινήν,
[80] ἵκετο δ᾽ ἐς Μαραθῶνα καὶ εὐρυάγυιαν Ἀθήνην,

Note that Homer also used the plural form. The possibility cannot be excluded that the singular form was an Homeric invention metri causa.

Also singular Mycene, incidentally with the same adjective, Iliad 4.52:

τὸν δ᾽ ἠμείβετ᾽ ἔπειτα βοῶπις πότνια Ἥρη:
‘ἤτοι ἐμοὶ τρεῖς μὲν πολὺ φίλταταί εἰσι πόληες
Ἄργός τε Σπάρτη τε καὶ εὐρυάγυια Μυκήνη:

The following extract from Quora may traces the plural vs singular story of Athens. The -s represented the plural form, at least as Old English is concerned:

Loan-translations or calques occur when speakers of one language borrow not the exact sounds of a word in another language, but the structure of that word.

  • In the case of the place name Athens, the original Greek word Ἀθῆναι Athēnai had the unusual peculiarity that it was grammatically plural, marked by the suffix -ai. This is possibly because the word itself a loan from the non-Indo-European language that used to be spoken there before the arrival of the Greeks, and was a common-noun (of unknown meaning) that referred to multiple things of some kind. Some scholars believe that the Anatolian language Luwian was the substrate language spoken in Greece before the arrival of the Greeks

  • This word was then loan-translated into Latin as Athēnae, where the -ae was a Latin plural suffix corresponding to Greek -ai. When this word was in turn borrowed into English during the Anglo-Saxon period, the borrowers were well aware of this grammatical quirk and translated it into Old English as Athēnas, where -as was a plural ending in Old English (and the ancestor of modern -s).

    Later, in the Middle English period, the vowel was lost, leaving just Athens.

    However, note that while this toponym is morphologically plural, it is syntactically singular: verbs that agree with it take singular agreement, as in Athens is the capital of Greece.

Old English suffix -as (for plural nouns)

Etymology:

Perhaps from the Proto-Germanic accusative plural ending -anz, with regularly lost -n- before a fricative, or perhaps from the nominative plural *-ōs, a voiceless variety of the regular ending *-ōz. Akin to Old Saxon -os (Low German -s), Dutch -s, Swedish -ar.

  • Nominative and accusative case ending, originally of a-stem masculine nouns, later extended to other nouns.

Descendants: English: -s

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    Thank you for your answer. But what source does the Quora article base its statements on? I was hoping to find a reliable source. – Cerberus Mar 14 '17 at 15:57
  • @Cerberus - The extract looks reliable, comparing also with other sources. – user66974 Mar 14 '17 at 16:52
  • I don't know, it could be just an hypothesis. And I haven't found any true sources to compare it with... – Cerberus Mar 14 '17 at 17:34
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    The Quora article is interesting, especially the suggestion that Athenas was adopted by Old English. But it does not seem to answer the question of whether Athenas (or Athens, its Middle English descendant) was ever syntactically plural. – ktm5124 Mar 14 '17 at 20:10
  • Are you sure Homer uses Ἀθήνη for Athens and not for Athena? I just had a quick (far from comprehensive) look and the only cases of Ἀθήνη I could find referred to the goddess, not the city. I found a few references to the city but all were in the plural. – terdon Mar 15 '17 at 16:15
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Maybe there isn't a reliable source in the English language. In Old Greek and Latin it was plural. It is still plural in other languages (for example, in Russian it still takes the plural verb). The same is with Thebes, was plural in Greek, still plural in other languages, has -s in English. P.S. Cannes, Syracuse, Mycenae, Thessaloniki.

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    So Athens is plural in Russian? That's interesting, could be relevant. – Cerberus Apr 25 '18 at 3:12

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