Dual (grammatical number)

Dual is the grammatical number used for two referents.

In some languages, in addition to the singular and plural forms there is also a dual form, which is used when exactly two people or things are meant. In many languages with dual forms, use of the dual is mandatory, and the plural is used only for groups greater than two. In some languages, however (for example, Egyptian Arabic, many other modern Arabic dialects, and Ancient Greek), use of the dual is optional. In some languages (for example, Hebrew), the dual exists only for a few measure words and for words that naturally come in pairs (such as eyes). (In Slovenian, strangely, the dual is used for most nouns, but not for nouns that come in natural pairs; the plural is used instead.)(In many other Slavic languages there is a special plural for counting 2 [as well as 3 and 4] from counting 5 and more)

Although relatively few languages have the dual number and most have no number or only singular and plural, using different words for groups of two and groups greater than two is not uncommon. English has a distinction between both and all, either and any, and neither and none. Japanese, which has no grammatical number, also has words dochira (which of the two) and dore (which of the three or more).

Use in modern languages

Among living languages, modern standard Arabic has a mandatory dual number, marked on nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns. (First-person dual forms, however, do not exist; compare this to the lack of third-person dual forms in the old Germanic languages.) Many of the spoken Arabic dialects have a dual marking for nouns (only), but its use is not mandatory. Hebrew, a related Semitic language, also has some forms of dual, largely for measurements of time, parts of the body and things that come in pairs, such as švu`ayim (two weeks), `eynayim (eyes), šinayim (teeth, even all 32), and mišqafayim (eyeglasses). Likewise, Akkadian had a dual number, though its use was confined to standard phrases like "two hands", "two eyes", and "two arms".

The Inuktitut language uses dual forms. Some Polynesian languages, including Niuean and Tongan, possess a dual number for pronouns but not for nouns (indeed, they tend not to mark nouns for number at all).

The dual was a standard feature of the Finno-Ugric proto-language, and lives on in Sami languages, while other branches like Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian have lost it. Sami also features dual pronouns, expressing the concept of "we two here" as contrasted to "we".

As well, the dual form is used in several modern Indo-European languages, such as Slovenian and Sorbian; see below for details. The Dual was a common feature of all early Slavic languages at the beginning of the second millenium.

Dual form in Indo-European languages

From comparisons of existing and recorded languages, linguists have concluded that the Proto-Indo-European language had dual forms. This use was preserved in the earliest records of Indo-European languages. This is best represented in Sanskrit, with a mandatory dual number for all inflected categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns. The Ancient Greek language used in the Homeric texts, the Iliad and Odyssey, likewise had dual forms for all inflected categories, although their use was only sporadic. Old Church Slavic (the ancestor of the Slavic languages) had dual forms, as did Old Irish and Avestan. (Sanskrit and the Slavic languages agree in showing only three dual forms for nouns: nominative-accusative-vocative, dative-ablative-instrumental, and genitive-locative. Greek has only two forms, and Old Irish only one. Avestan has a genitive dual separate from the locative, but this may not go back to Proto-Indo-European.)

The dual form was present in the early Germanic languages. Gothic had first- and second-person dual marking on verbs and pronouns; Old English, Old Norse and other old Germanic languages had dual marking only on first- and second-person pronouns. The dual has disappeared from all modern Germanic languages -- although only quite recently in North Frisian [1]. Interestingly, the old dual pronouns have become the standard plural pronouns in Icelandic.

Among Indo-European languages of the present day, the dual form had endured for relatively long among the Slavic languages. Slovenian language uses the dual number in full, and Sorbian, the Slavic language of a very small minority in Germany, also uses the dual number. Among the Baltic languages, the dual form existed but is now obsolete in standard Lithuanian, being used in poetic context and some dialects.

Serbian and Croatian have generalized old dual instrumental case endings in nouns and pronouns for a number of cases in the plural, but in some cases, the dual form remained distinctive from plural. Dual form has been retained in nouns that appear together with numbers: two, three and four and with word "both".

Nominative case of noun cut:


singular: 1 rez dual: 2,3,4 reza plural: 5 rezova


singular: 1 sec dual: 2,3,4 seca plural: 5 secova

Polish had dual in normal use in its earliest forms. Today only some objects that come in pairs like "two hands", "two eyes" (but not "two ears" or "two legs") use it in some inflected forms -- both plural and "fossilised" dual form for them is correct:

  • hands: nominative ręce, instrumental rękami (plural), rękoma (dual)
  • eyes: nominative oczy, instrumental oczami (plural), oczyma (dual)

Official Czech also has few remnants of dual: certain body parts in instrumental and genitive (and the modifying adjectives) require the dual, e.g., "se svýma očima" (inst. dual with one's own eyes) and "u nohou "(gen. dual at the feet). Colloquial Czech substitutes the instrumental dual for the instrumental plural. Thus, while "s kamarády" (with friends) would be grammatically correct, this, in colloquial Czech, is rendered "s kamarádama", which reflects the form of the dual. The dual in old czech was more extensive, and included such things as pronouns (onĕ - they for two females).

Every Slavic language has retained lexical remnants of the dual. The old plural of "oko", eye, was "očesa". In almost every language in which the Dual has disappeared, "očesa" has disappeared along with it, and the form "oči" has predominated. (Slovene "očesa" pushed out "oči" instead, becoming the proper dual (and plural) of "oko"). About the same holds for "uho". In Bulgarian and Macedonian, "rące" and "noze" have become the regular plurals for old nouns "hands" ("arms") and "feet" ("legs").

See also grammatical number, trial grammatical number.

Languages with dual include:

[1] Howe, Stephen. The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages. A study ofpersonal pronoun morphology and change in the Germanic languages from the firstrecords to the present day. [Studia Linguistica Germanica, 43]. Berlin: de Gruyter,1996. (xxii + 390 pp.) pp. 193-195.

Grammar | Language | Linguistics

cs:Dvojné číslo de:Dual es:Número dual


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