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In Russian most plurals are formed by adding the “-i” sound to the end of the word. Since English has a tradition of borrowing the plural forms from other languages, I wonder whether it can be used with Russian.

For example, there is a Russuan dish “пельмени” (pel'meni) which usually is used in the plural form (because the dish usually consists of several pieces), but the singular for it is “пельмень” (pel'men'). I wonder if it would be correct in English to use the words “pelmen” for singular and “pelmeni” for plural? Or should I use “pelmens”? Or maybe “pelmeni” should stand for singular and “pelmenis” for plural?

A similar question applies to other Russian words; for example, the “strelets” is a Russian shooter from the 16th century. How would you pluralize it in English?

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Looking at this list of borrowed Russian words, I see a few that are very common, and we nearly always--if not always--use the s as plural in my experience.

Some that come immediately to mind are balalaikas (cf. "Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out" from Back in the U.S.S.R. by the Beatles), balaclavas, Cosmonauts, kopecks, rubles, mammoths, czars, tsars, tsarinas, Soviets, vodkas, apparatchiks, gulags. One that I think I might have heard both ways is babushkas and babushki (but I note that the spell checker here is recommending babushkas as a correction to babushki).

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    Plural for babushka in Russian is babushki, not babushkai. – Anixx Jun 14 '14 at 16:00
  • seems not edited... – Anixx Nov 11 '14 at 17:23
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This is a very difficult question to answer, since it deals with future developments in the language. Unlike other languages (for instance, French), there's no regulatory authority for the language.

Even in the case of l'Academie Francaise, they are largely ineffective in determining how language is used in informal contexts, though I'm unsure of their effect in institutional settings - they may attempt to do so through scholastic, academic and governmental instruments, which might actually be effective.

In English, plurals are formed in a few ways (and there's confusion about words, even those that have been in the language for a long time). The main issue is that there are really no defined procedures for determining which way a loanword will pluralise. Some of them pluralise according to the rules in the donor language, others pluralise according to productive, regular English rules.

As for your examples, I would likely pluralise them as:

  • /pelmen/ ~ /pelmenz/
  • /strelets/ ~ /streletsez/

However, this would only be the case if I had never seen or heard them before and had no native speakers around to ask. Why? Because while they're still foreign words, used in English, meaning I'd want to use the foreign pluralisations. This depends on the individual speaker, though.

Once incorporated into the language, it's difficult to guess whether native or foreign rules for pluralisation will apply.

  • orangutan, borrowed from Bahasa Melayu, would be pluralised as orang-orang hutan, as reduplication is a productive process in that language. In English, however, the pluralisation is simply orangutans, honoring English processes.
  • beau, from French, however, pluralises both ways - as beaux and as beaus, as in French and English respectively.

The short answer:

  • I would ask native speakers what the Russian plural is, but mainly for my own knowledge;
  • I would pluralise them as English for audiences unfamiliar with the native plurals, and;
  • I would pluralise them as Russian for audiences familiar with the native plurals.
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As a linguistic rule, irregularities are more often preserved in commonly used words; people tend not to be able to remember special cases for rarely used words.

Pluralization strategies vary widely between languages, and English speakers can't be familiar with all the rules. As a general rule, loan words that are fully adopted in English tend to use English pluralization rules. There may be an adjustment period during which the plural form changes as the word is assimilated into English.

As a Slavic example, take pierogi (and its dozen spelling variants). In Polish, pierogi is already plural; pieróg is the singular.

In this Google Ngram comparison, we see that pierogies started appearing in the mid-1980s and has been gaining ground relative to the more traditional form, pierogi.

Google Ngram of "pierogi" vs. "pierogie" vs. "pierogies"

Interestingly, if we take the more anglicized spelling, we see that perogies has always been the accepted form. It makes sense that English speakers who adopt an anglicized version of a word would also treat it more like an English word.

Google Ngram of "perogi" vs. "perogie" vs. "perogies"

Google Ngram shows pelmeni as the only form observed in English. I predict, though, that if the dish becomes popular, we might start seeing English speakers saying pelmenies.

  • The "anglicized" form is closer to Russian actually, in Russian it is "pirogi", so I suspect this word could be borrowed more than once from different Slavic languages. – Anixx Nov 14 '14 at 12:00
  • What about "spaghetties"? I never heard of that one. – Anixx Nov 14 '14 at 12:02

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