While reading Osip Mandelshtam, I came across the word качель in singular.

Я качался в далеком саду
На простой деревянной качели,
И высокие темные ели
Вспоминаю в туманном бреду.

In modern language the word, as far as I know, is always used in plural (plurale tantum).

The question is:

  • When and why did качель become качели?
  • Did it, perhaps, happen in another direction?
  • What is this process called in linguistics?
  • Are both forms legal nowadays?
  • Are there any other examples of using качель? The only example that comes to my mind is Bezentchuk's "Нимфа" разве товар дает, тудыть её в качель?!, but the meaning here is completely different. Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 3:53
  • My bad, there is plenty of examples on ruscorpora. Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 4:02

2 Answers 2


Studying n-grams, we can see that the plural form appeared before the singular:

enter image description here

Noting that the number of occurrences of the form качель was multiplied by five to make for a better graph, it can be seen that it was used much less than качели.

Keep in mind that these results can be not very accurate in the early years. For instance, between 1740 and 1774 out of six exemplars for качели, three were in a foreign language (some form of Latin) and highlighted words had nothing to do with the subject.

Correct results, however, show that the word was already well established in its pl. form as evidenced in I. I. Betskoj’s book about laws pertaining to education of youngsters (1774):

enter image description here

Although it is possible that it means several separate качелей (swings or see-saws). It is hard to tell, because Google's corpora are not indexed with grammatical number in mind (or, at least, it cannot be accessed via web-interface).

However, not far from then, in Полный немецко-россiйской лексиконъ (German-to-Russian dictionary) by Mr. Adelung (1798), sg. form is asserted just as strongly:

enter image description here

In modern usage both forms are used in its original sense (outside of colloquial “туды его в качель”), but the singular form is rare. Modern rulebooks indeed declare it pluralia tantum (allegedly, from 1930s), but it still can be used in fiction. See Shishkov’s Угрюм-река (1928—1933):

enter image description here

What makes things even more complicated, the pl. gen. form that is качелей now, used to be качель as well, like here (Kostomarov, late XIX century, from modern reprint):

enter image description here

  • Thanks for the great answer, that's exactly what I asked for! Haven't you found the name of the process (or maybe it is nameless)?
    – petajamaja
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 9:18
  • @Umari, not yet, but I shall try. I just did not have enough time yet. This answer is still to be improved.
    – theUg
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 16:15

The main use of this word nowdays is "качели", you are right, it is always used in plural. But the usage of "качели" in singular form is allowed only in author's poetic speech.: "качеля". And in this poem this word is used in prepositional form "качели". P.S.: I am not a philologist, I am simply Russian, and I can only assume that this process is called "архаизм". It is old word, the usage of which has changed. Maybe one century ago this word was used really in plural form.

I hope, my explanation is understandable for you. My level of English isn't high.=))

Here you can read about this word. http://ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%87%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B8 I haven't found any text about when the usage was chaged.

  • Я тоже русская =) Спасибо за ответ, с английским, по-моему, у Bас всё отлично, не наговаривайте на себя =) На викисловарь я уже залезала, мне его не хватило для ответа... Архаизм, к сожалению, означает немного другое - см. ссылку. Это не процесс, а само устаревшее слово (может, Вы имели в виду архаизацию?) Притом, слово "качель" не устарело, оно изменило число... Или я не права?
    – petajamaja
    Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 21:56
  • Anyway, I agree with almost everything in your answer. The only thing I'm afraid you misunderstood is the process I was asking for. I meant the process of changing of the word form from singular (which can have plural form) to pluralia tantrum (when no singular form is allowed).
    – petajamaja
    Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 22:04

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