How many plurals should a language have?

. 2 min read

There are no plurals in Mandarin.* It's hard to imagine, isn't it? How could a language not distinguish between "apple" and "apples"?

My native English speaker friend couldn't believe it. "How do Chinese people communicate without plurals?"

If you haven't visited China yet, daily life there is pretty normal. People in China have normal jobs and do all the normal things you do. Chinese people walk into greengrocers and buy apples without remarking to the shopkeeper, "Now, I really wish I had a word to emphasise that I wanted two apples instead of one!".

At this point of the conversation, my native English speaker friend scoffed, "Well FINE, I don't care if it's possible to not have plurals. But a language should have plurals. It is important to emphasise quantity. English is right." My friend could not be convinced.

Now, let me ask you a very controversial question.

How should a programming language denote the end of a function?

  • With the keyword end, like Ruby does?
  • With spacing, like Python does?
  • (Insert your favourite programming language here)

I had this discussion (argument?) with an engineer many years ago. He loved Python, and he thought Python was clearly better than Ruby. Ruby's end keyword was unnecessary, therefore inelegant, therefore inferior.

One language to rule them all?

I like Python, Ruby, and other programming languages. I like English, Mandarin, and other human languages.

It's useful to have more than one programming language in the toolbox. Python is a great choice for many problems, but it's not the best choice for every situation.

There are always going to be differences between languages. It's the diversity which makes human and programming languages a joy to learn and use.

Why don't we celebrate the entertaining differences in human languages, rather than wanting them to all be just like English?

Why don't we appreciate the differences in programming languages, rather than making another joke at JavaScript's expense?

Why don't we learn from our differences, rather than immediately judging them as bad and undesirable?

*Mandarin does not distinguish between "apple" and "apples". However there are a few plurals in the form of pronouns, such as "they" and "you (plural)".

Photo by Neil Ingham on Unsplash.