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
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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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    Reg's criticism is based on a misreading of the OP. It refers to "the... plural 's'" - in other words, if you look closely, it says "... 's' " - the letter 's' is enclosed in single quotes, and the quote as a whole in double quotes. – rjpond Sep 4 at 20:18

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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    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
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    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
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    @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_Reinstate_Monica Feb 1 '12 at 4:59
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    This answer is somewhat overrated. There are lots of OE neuters with identical singular and plural forms that form regular plurals in modern English, like "land" and "thing", and in general, mod.E. treatment of plurals is far removed from OE, and the fact that something happened in OE isn't even remotely close to an adequate explanation of why it happens in mod.E. It may of course be a part of the explanation. – rjpond Sep 4 at 20:51

It is true that "sheep" comes from an Old English word that is the same in the (nominative and accusative) plural as it is in the (nominative and accusative) singular.

But this isn't the reason why "sheep" is the plural form in modern English - or if it is, it's only a small part of the explanation.

Some Old English neuters have (nom & acc) plurals identical to their (nom & acc) singulars, others don't. For example, the OE word for "ship" is "scip" in the singular, "scipu" in the plural - whereas the word for "sheep" is "sceap" in both singular and plural. As has been pointed out, "sceap" would originally have had a plural "sceapu", but this had been almost entirely lost in OE.

However, to that I have to say "so what?" - because "house", "land", "thing", and "tree" are all words which were identical in their OE (nom & acc) singular to their OE (nom & acc) plurals - respectively, "hus", "land", "þing", and "treow".

(And it's not as though the plural suffix of the word "ships" bears any resemblance to the "-u" of "scipu", either, does it?)

So, an invariant plural in OE rarely leads to an invariant plural in modern English. (And yes, "hus", "land", "þing", "treow" are all neuter, too, just as "sceap" is.)

One other thing that "sheep" and "deer" have in common, apart from being OE neuters with invariant plurals, though, is that both terms describe animals, and there's a certain tendency to have invariant plurals for certain animals, especially those normally found in herds. Of course, there are many other animals to which this doesn't apply.

We could note that "elk" is very often used as the plural of "elk" (although a regular plural "elks" exists), despite the fact "elk" was an OE masculine with a regular plural ending "-s". "Antelope" is often (not always) used as a plural, and didn't exist in OE at all. "Buffalo" is often (not always) used as a plural, and didn't exist in OE, and has a regular plural in Spanish and Portuguese. Mari-Lou A points out that "fish" has long been used as a plural of itself: this usage was first attested c.1400; before then, and in OE, "fish" had had a regular plural (OE "fiscas") ("fishes" today is mainly used to denote multiple types of fish, at least in standard English).

Overall, then, the OE etymology is only a small part of the explanation.

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  • Don't forget fish, for hundreds of years there was no plural form. – Mari-Lou A Sep 5 at 4:47
  • I have added a bit about fish / fishes (although I wanted to keep it brief). However, I'm unsure whether "fishes" ever went out of use completely (and was revived or reinvented) or whether it was always there but became much less common (which it remains today in most contexts, although more common in AmE than in BrE, according to some sources). "Fish" as a plural is first attested c1400. "Fishes" appeared in the 1611 Bible. – rjpond Sep 5 at 8:44

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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This is only my assumption or theory. In German it is das Schaf (singular neuter) and die Schafe (plural). But in dialects the final e is dropped and the plural is "die Schaf". I suppose that in the dialects of Old Saxon and other dialects of Anglo-Saxon this tendency was the same. I assume that especially farmers used this kind of plural (without -s) and this habit of speaking was adopted in the standard language. The plural without -s, i.e. singular and plural have the same form, is found with names of animals in the language of farmers, fishermen and hunters, people who use simple and often reduced language.

I can't prove this theory, but as the above posts show there is uncertainty and there are several explanations that are not very convincing. So I think it is justified to come up with another hypothesis which has some degree of plausibility.

Now, after writing this post, I've looked up what Grimm says in DWB. My view is not quite right, though I'm not far off. Grimm says the plural of the Old High German word for sheep has the same form as the singular. Later, in Middle High German a plural with -e comes up. So it seems that English has conserved the older system, plural without any ending, so that singular and plural have the same form.

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