Plural markers in some languages are quite unlike their Indo-European counterparts in that their use does not depend only on number but also on other considerations (pragmatic, perspective-related and so on). This article gives an insight into how such plurals work, based on a careful analysis of the suffix -men in Mandarin Chinese.
The notion of personal collective is what universally underlies the so-called plural of personal pronouns. Benveniste (1966) has shown that in this case pluralization does not amount to an addition or multiplication of elements, but to what he calls ‘amplification of persons’, that is, a collective. In Chinese it is this pronominal plural that has been extended, under certain conditions, to nouns.
It is claimed that the occurrence of -men is governed by the conjunction of number (n>1) and person (reference to a subject-origin). Grammatical person is taken to refer to the space (and positions within it) organized around a subject-origin, normally the speaker. -Men requires that entities be related to a human locator who performs the role of the deictic centre and acts as the origin of point of view. The required conditions are by definition met with personal pronouns, which is why -men is obligatory, but are seldom satisfied with nouns, which is why the latter take the suffix only rarely. Most remarkably, when nouns are not reducible to pronouns, the occurrence of -men is associated with a shift in perspective. The group is considered from the point of view of a locator distinct from the speaker, not from that of the speaker. The speaker being essentially free to shift his viewpoint or not, this explains why -men is optional (though not arbitrary) with nouns in such contexts. Note that, all else being equal (n>1), the contrast between N and N-men is not one of number but of point of view (external versus internal point of view). In summary, the suffix operates in all cases with reference to a subject-origin, either the speaker or a protagonist whose point of view is provisionally adopted by the narrator.
The case of Chinese, far from being exotic, is a meaningful illustration of the interaction between the grammatical categories of number and person. This study opens up new typological perspectives in terms of grammaticalization of the pronominal versus nominal plural across languages.