What caused complex plural forms in Russian? Were they borrowed from another language, inherited from Old Russian, or is there another reason why they appeared?

By "complex plural forms" I mean the special plural form of nouns when they follow numerals:

одно яблоко, одна ошибка (singular)
зеленые яблоки (plural)
два яблока, две ошибки (complex plural)
пятнадцать яблок, пятнадцать ошибок (complex plural)


2 Answers 2


Historically, the numeral два required a special dual number (два крыле, двѣ нозѣ), and the other numerals were usual female nouns, which governed their objects just like any other female noun would: пять монет / горсть монет, similar to пятёрка монет.

Later, when the dual number fell, its forms corresponding to два were rethought as sg. gen., and the words три and четыре accepted this paradigm too (because they were not of third declension, and were influenced by paradigm of demonstrative pronoun те in plural).

  • Is the ending -а of some plurals like города also explained as a dual form used to express the plural?
    – Giorgio
    Jun 29, 2012 at 5:38
  • 1
    @Giorgio: there are nouns which retain the dual: глаза, рога, бока, муде and there is a trend in modern Russian to form plural for the words with certain vowel combinations (like город, якорь, кучер etc.) with the final stressed , . Whether the two phenomena are connected is a subject of debate.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 29, 2012 at 7:59
  • @Giorgio I have heard the explanation that the ending -a in plural comes from the -a ending of the neuter plural nominative.
    – Olga
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:16
  • @Olga: Does this mean that words like город used to be neuter? We have similar examples in Italian, i.e. nouns that used to be neuter in Latin and that in modern Italian are masculine but with an -a plural ending.
    – Giorgio
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:22
  • @Quassnoi: If the -a in the plural города were a dual ending, then we would have an interesting phenomenon that the stress is on the first syllable in два города (dual) and on the last syllable in города (plural).
    – Giorgio
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:33

Interesting enough, in Russian you use sg. gen. when counting up to four items, and pl.gen. when counting from five and more items.

For example:

два (четыре/три) цветка / пять цветков 
две (четыре/три) женщины/пять женщин
два (три/четыре) яблока / пять яблок

This feature is most likely borrowed from Finno-Ugric languages (cf. with Finnish or some Sami languages).

There is also a "human animate plural" meaning a certain number of persons, like in Irish:

пятеро (четверо/трое/двое) друзей
пятеро (четверо/трое/двое) женщин

But it is impossible to say in Russian пятеро (четверо/трое/двое) букв.

There is also a set of "human animate quantative adverbials" describing a quantity of persons acting together. This paradigm is productive for up to ten persons, although the list may be extended with tens, e.g.

?ввосьмером (something is strange about this word)

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