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The grammatical category of number — unmarked singular vs marked plural — is lacking, right from its origin, in the Chinese language. Words used to indicate plurality can be already noticed, however, in documents prior to the Qin dynasty. Later, particles appear which play a similar role after personal pronouns and some nouns. -Men is one of them. Several hypotheses have been put forward about the origin of this suffix, which would date back to five centuries ago.

In modern Chinese, -men is used as a plural marker for personal pronouns, which can therefore be said to possess the grammatical category of number. Nouns behave quite differently. While a noun that is marked with -men must be interpreted as "plural", an unmarked noun can be interpreted as either "singular" or "plural". -Men can only be used after both animate and humain nouns that are generally definite and when an indefinite numbering operation is implied ; its presence seems to indicate totality.

The Chinese language has other means at its disposal to specify the number of nouns. Consequently, -men is not likely to be more widely used.

In: Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale