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In English there is a very notable asymmetry between demonyms ending in -ese and -ish and other demonyms. The latter can be used as a regular count noun, but the former are almost always restricted to being plural:

  • An American, two Americans, the Americans
  • *A British, *two British, the British
  • *A Portuguese, *two Portuguese, the Portuguese

In these examples, the -ish and -ese demonyms are not only mostly used in the plural, but mostly used in the specific construction "the ____ese/-ish". The other forms are possible, but seem discouraged and even criticized by some pedants.

It's especially strange when it comes to the French-origin -ese suffix. Parallels in German and of course French don't inhibit countability and declension at all:

  • (German) Ein Chinese, zwei Chinesen, die Chinesen (singular Chinese, plural Chinesen; ein for "a(n)/one", zwei for "two", die for plural "the")
  • (French) Un Anglais, deux Anglais, les Anglais (singular Anglais, plural Anglais; Anglais for "English(man)", un for "a(n)/one", deux for "two", les for plural "the")
  • (French) Un Finnois, deux Finnois, les Finnois (singular Finnois, plural Finnois; Finnois for "Finn")

(Note for the French examples, there's no irregularity. The plural forms are simply exactly the same as the singular ones because the singular ones already have an s at the end.)

German doesn't seem to use its own version of -ish, -isch, for demonymic nouns, instead opting for -er as in Engländer (not * Englisch) or Deutscher (not * Deutsch).

So what is with English that there's this arbitrary "rule"? Why doesn't it sound quite "right" to say something like "I saw two Japanese at the market yesterday" or "There was a blond British at the mall"?

Edit: Apparently the way the suffix -ese behaves now is rather new. It used to be acceptable to use Chinese the same way you would have American. Here are some quotes from Basil Hall Chamberlain's translation of the Kojiki:

Korean King and of three or four other Koreans and Chinese.

But the compiler of the latter work, whose object it was to appear and to make his forefathers appear, as reasonable as a learned Chinese, adds a gloss to the effect that [...]

A Japanese, to whom the origin of the word is patent, and who uses it every day in contexts by no means divine [...]

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    Note that Dane::Danish is analogous to Briton::British. Your title may need adjustment. Also two Chinese and two Japanese have certainly been acceptable in the past and may still be.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 8:08
  • Title fixed. It's funny you mentioned the past, because I remember reading this translation of the Kojiki by Basil Hall Chamberlain and he did use "a Chinese" from what I can recall. When did that start to become "wrong", even deemed "racist" by some. Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 8:53
  • Are you sure you aren’t confusing fused modifier-head NPs with actual nouns? Related and possible duplicates: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 15:00
  • @tchrist I'm aware that there are such expressions as "the deaf", "the blind", "the dead" wherein no reasonable person would consider "deaf", "blind" or "dead" nouns. But demonyms are problematic, because they do in fact double as nouns and are labeled as nouns in some dictionaries. But thanks for that term, "fused modifier-head NP". "The Chinese" might be nothing but a fused modifier-head NP, or it's actually a noun phrase in itself, given how the word "Chinese" used to be used by writers like Basil Hall Chamberlain. Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 15:07
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    Here are two perfectly valid instances of the sequence two Portuguese sat and many instances of the Portuguese asked clearly showing the word used as both a singular and a collective noun. The British, on the other hand, only works as a collective. We don't normally say Two British sat at the bar. They'd be Two Brit[on]s. Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 2:08

2 Answers 2

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There is already an established way to nominalise the following country adjectives: English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and French and that is by adding the suffixes -man, -men, -woman and -women: Englishman, Scotsman, Welshman, Irishman, and Frenchman are still used today along with their female counterparts while the gender-neutral person is rarely, if ever, attached to a demonymic word *Englishperson.

There is also Briton and its plural Britons from which the more popular diminutive forms Brit and Brits were most likely derived. This might explain why the English language has never felt the necessity to make the demonyms English and British function as nouns too, that gap had already been filled.

On a final note, the plural Englishes denotes the different varieties of the spoken language in the world and not to the inhabitants of England.

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  • I suppose. If there's already a well established way, why bother with anything else? Although the binary suffixes -man and -woman are more and more problematic, so we have to deal with ungainly two word constructions like "English person" which still irks a neat freak like me. Why do you work like this, English??? Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 14:40
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The answer lies in the function of these words:

In English, no* adjectives take inflections regardless of their function in the sentence:

The large cat / the American soldier

*The larges cats / * the Americans soldiers.

The word British is not a common noun, it is only an adjective that can be used

(i) attributively: "The British weather is fickle."

(ii) predicatively "I am British" and

(iii) substantivised "The British are phlegmatic."

There is a parallel with other such words, e.g. "deaf"

The deaf patients are seen on Thursday / He is deaf / The deaf are very patient. (* The deafs are in the waiting room.)

Thus substantivised adjectives appear to act as uncountable nouns.

Some, but not all, demonyms (see Wikipedia's List) are common nouns and thus do take a plural:

That American has a large car / Those Americans have large cars.

*valid for large values of "no." There are a few adopted foreign adjectives that are sometimes pretentiously inflected for gender.

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    I don't think this is as clear cut as "adjectives vs nouns". Some dictionaries actually list "the British" in a "noun" entries, while simultaneously list "deaf" exclusively as "adjective". Moreover, this still doesn't explain why other adjectives like "American" have plural forms. The suffix -anus was originally adjectival in Latin, and later nominalized in both Latin, and English -an. Plus there's also the adjectival Latin -ensis which bore English -ese, but which isn't as functional in English as -an. Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 10:47
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    other adjectives like "American" have plural forms. That is rather my point - adjectives do not have plurals... Your questions to yourself should be "Is it a noun or an adjective? Can I add 's'?"
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 14:02
  • @Vun-HughVaw You won't get any further grammatically trying this on ❌ a French, let alone with ❌ any Frenches you might come across. Nouning gentilic adjectives of these sorts risks being insultingly inappropriate, lest it produce cheesy nonsense like Danishes instead of Danes — or even Polishes instead of Poles. 😈
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 14:25
  • "risks being insultingly inappropriate", so is it like a matter of style or politeness? That's kind of weird but I suppose it's a possible reason. Could you elaborate on this with an answer? Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 15:10
  • @Greybeard Okay, poor choice of words. What I meant was "other nominalized adjectives with plural forms". As in adjectives that became fully fledged nouns, like "American". Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 15:20

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