A Gaggle of Nouns

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English Animal Plurals

Plurals are cute, don’t you agree? There is something charming about a plural, because of what it implies. It implies that these things, whatever they are, belong to a category of things, that in some important sense they are all the same kind of thing. Plurals tell us a lot about the human mind.

English has a charming feature where certain animals, when referred to as a group, have a specific term for the group that has to be used. I guess you could call these animal-specific noun classifiers, but they mostly show up, in English, in animal plurals. (You also get them for vehicles.) Some are well-known:

a school of fish

a flock of sheep/birds

a herd of cattle/elephants

a pride of lions

a pack of dogs

But they get more obscure, and hence more fun:

a pod of whales

a smuck of jellyfish

a gaggle of geese

a gang of turkeys

an exaltation of larks

a murder of crows

a troop of monkeys

a mischief of raccoons

a colony of ants

a gluttony of bears

a brood of vipers

One of these is made up.

Add your own below, in the comments.

These group classes can be used of people if you want to imply that the group of people resembles the group of animals in some way: “A gaggle of middle-schoolers.” And I love it when Sting, in one of his songs, refers to two priests “fussing and flapping in priestly black like a murder of crows.” The two of them (already plural, but barely) somehow resemble a large plural of crows.

Indonesian Noun Classes

Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) is an Austronesian language closely related to Malaysian. Indonesian does not have lot of grammatical morphology. For verbs, it handles past and future tense mostly by context, and by the use of words such as “already” (sudah) and “not-yet” (belum). It doesn’t have grammatical genders, and in fact the pronoun for he, she, or it, dia, doesn’t indicate sex. (Tellingly, although you cannot indicate the person’s sex with a third person pronoun, there is an alternate third person singular pronoun which you can use if you wish to be more respectful: beliau. There are also more and less respectful ways to say I and you.)

But despite not having grammatical gender, Indonesian has noun classes. These show up when you want to say how many of something there are (our old friend plurals again!), or when you want to use the indefinite article (a/an).

  • Sebuah is the classifier for most inanimate things. For example, “sebuah meja” means “a table.” (Literally, “one-thing table”).
  • You can also say semacam, which means “some kind of.” “Semacam proyek” = “some kind of project.”
  • For people, the classifier is “orang,” which means person. “Seorang perempuan” means “a woman.” (Literally, “one-person woman”).
  • For animals, the classifier is “ekor,” which means “tail.” “Seekor kucing” = “a cat.”
  • For fruit, it’s “biji,” which means “seed.”
  • Sehelai rambut” = “one [strand of] hair.”

There are plenty of others, but these are the main ones that I remember. I think batang (“trunk”) is used for trees, and there are probably specialized terms for boats and other vehicles. Not all of them are used all the time. Learning them all is sort of like learning specialized terms in English. As someone once said, “Never call a rifle a gun, a line a rope, or a ship a boat.”

For plurals and to ask how many, the classifier word is separated from the number.

  • Dia mempunyai dua orang anak” = “He has two children” (“two person child“).
  • Mau brokoli? Berapa batang?” = “You want broccoli? How-many stems?”
  • Kami lihat tiga ekor tikus” = “We saw three rats
  • Dia beli empat biji mangga” = “She bought four mangoes

I hope you find this interesting. Please post your own lesser-known examples of noun classes, or your tongue-in-cheek proposals for new ones.

11 thoughts on “A Gaggle of Nouns

    1. I tried to follow your link, but it just took me to Blogger not to your post, and then it wanted to me to log in and all this stuff that was just too much for my lil’ brain. I’ll try to imagine your post; I’m sure it’s very funny.


  1. I would like to believe in a smuck of jellyfish, so I’m not going to look into this.

    Love the Indonesian lesson! Japanese has individual counters too, and I think they (counters in general) can be quite intimidating for someone learning the language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, don’t worry! “A smuck of jellyfish” was not made up. At least not by me.

      Indonesian classifier words aren’t so bad. You can get by for a long time with just “sebuah,” “seorang,” and “seekor,” and Indonesian even allows the speaker to leave out grammatical morphology in “casual speech.” That’s one thing I love about it. It’s so efficient, or as Indonesians would say, “Singkat.” I imagine Japanese is much more difficult, especially if the counters can’t be left out and there are very many of them.

      Liked by 1 person

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