Are any of these good translations of “A murder of crows”?
No, of course not. There are some things that you can’t translate literally from English, and the eccentric system collective nouns for birds and animals springs to mind.
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Sometimes in our language lessons, the question comes up: Do other languages have such an abundant (some might say ridiculous) armoury of words to describe groups of animals and birds?
The short answer is “probably not”.
Spanish, French, and German are more ancient than English as we know it, so of course they have plenty of interesting examples of collective nouns. But is there anything in any of these languages to rival a convocation of eagles, an intrusion of cockroaches, or a brevity of Tory prime ministers? (OK, I just made that one up.)
Have you ever wondered how all these weird and wonderful expressions entered the English language? A lot of them can be traced back to The Book of St. Albans, otherwise known as The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Heraldry.
It gave long lists of the correct nomenclature to use when talking about various aspects of courtly life, and detailed knowledge of how to reference not only a species of bird or animal but a group thereof, was considered seemly.
It was written at a monastery, so there are plenty of church-related mentions. It seems that the monks had been on the communion wine before coming up with some of the entries:
“A superfluity of nuns” must have been tongue in cheek, but it made the edit.
Many of these phrases have died out, but some are still in use today.
There are still three distinct collective nouns for geese:
A wedge when they are swimming; a skein when in flight, and the onomatopoeic ‘gaggle’, when they are walking – when they finally have time to gabble to each other.
A litter of puppies. It is no coincidence that the same word has come to means three apparently different things: baby animals, who were often born onto a bed of straw; discarded rubbish (especially the straw after it has had puppies born all over it); and the portable bed, carried by servants, to transport the nobleman before the invention of the Range Rover. They all derive from the Latin for ‘bed’: lectus.
Image source: www.thatcreativefeeling.com
Bees and kittens
In the fifteenth century it was common to refer to a bike of bees. Linguist-historians think that this word fell out of favour only at the invention of the two-wheeler. The same logic can hardly be applied a kindle of kittens, as there were no references to its usage for a couple of centuries before the e-reader came along, but it’s nice, don’t you think, that such a pleasing word should have been brought back to life.
Speaking of resurrections, a murder of crows had hardly been used during the intervening centuries since it was originally coined for the Book of St Albans, but it has re-entered the language as one of the obscure collective nouns that most people seem to know about.
We could go on all day with these, but this is the last one.
Linguists disagree on this but, the best sources I can find seem to think that a school of fish comes from an old English word scolu simply meaning a group, whereas as shoal comes from Greek via Dutch, schola, which carries the obvious meaning. My understanding is that a school is a group of the same species of fish, whereas a shoal can be a mixed group of any aquatic creatures.
Collective nouns in French, German and Spanish
In general terms, other languages use a singular verb every time when using a singular noun to refer to a group.
This differs from English, partly. We can sometimes use a plural verb for a collective noun, as long as the implication is that the respective members of the group are acting as individuals:
“My family are all coming to the wedding.” [They are coming from different parts of the country]
My family is very close knit.” [We are a single unit]
Many of the words on the list, below, will already be familiar to you. If not, and if you are not interested in learning lots more words right now, the important ones for intermediate-level use are these:
une volée d'oiseaux a flock of birds
une meute de loups a pack of wolves
un troupeau de vaches a herd of cattle
In German there are at least two ways, grammatically, to refer to an amount of something in German.
Maybe the most useful one for us – the learner of general German – is the option used, for example, for a pride of lions: ein Rudel Löwen. The reason this is notable is because this is the normal way to refer to an amount of something in everyday speech:
eine Tasse Kaffee / eine Kiste Bier / eine Scheibe Käse
There is also the single-word option. “A herd of cattle”, for example, is eine Rindeherde. This efficiency possibly reflects the fact that it is a phrase in everyday use, at least in some circles!
ein Vogelschwarm a flock of birds
ein Rudel Wölfe a pack of wolves
eine Kuhherde a herd of cows
Here are a few more:
As mentioned above, collective nouns are used with a singular verb because they refer to the group as a single unit. Some of these nouns can be used in the plural when they refer to several groups of the same type.
Many collective nouns in Spanish are strongly related to the noun for the individual members that make up the group:.
Collective nouns with a different form
In some cases, the collective noun is very different to the individual noun it refers to. Whilst it is usually possible to pluralise the collective nouns themselves – it is perfectly possible to have several “bandadas de pájaros” (flocks of birds) - there are some which are always considered to be singular in Spanish. One of the most common mistakes for English speakers to make, is to use “gente” with a plural verb. This, along with the others that cannot be used in the plural, are shown below with an asterisk *.
personas → la gente*, la muchedumbre*
platos + vasos + fuentes + tazas → la vajilla
letras → el abecedario
estrellas → la constelación
islas → el archipiélago
ovejas → el rebaño
peces → el banco
perros → la jauría
aves → la bandada
cerdos → la piara
abejas → el enjambre
actores → el reparto
animales → la fauna*
plantas → la flora*
barcos → la flota
Feminine collective nouns
Some collective nouns are made with the feminine singular form of the corresponding individual noun.
bancos → la banca
leños → la leña
frutos → la fruta
The same take-home three for everyday use:
una bandada de pájaros a flock of birds
una manada de lobos a pack of wolves
un rebaño de vacas a herd of cows
I hope you have enjoyed this little insight into the world of collective nouns. It is quite fun, and potentially useful at the level of pub-quiz knowledge, but to be honest, if your language-learning time is limited, there are probably more productive ways of spending it!
Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages
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