Many a mickle makes a muckle

Or a muck up.

In the past, I’ve observed that Chinese seems to have about half a dozen words for everything, and even quantifiers are no exception. Several compounds of 多 (duō) “many, much; more” were plaguing me this morning, and further investigation, using the Youdao translation service, only seemed to make things worse. The words in question are 繁多 (fánduō) and 众多 (zhòngduō), which both mean “numerous”, and 好多 (hǎoduō) and 许多 (xǔduō) which both mean “many, much”.

My big dictionary says that 繁多 can also mean “various”, and that 众多 also means “many, multitudinous”. It translates 好多 as “a good or great many; a good deal; lots of” and merely adds the meaning “a lot” to 许多.

The problem is that my dictionary doesn’t explain whether these words are written or spoken, formal or informal, or what their range is (i.e., do they modify the same range of things or specific groups of things with some overlap?). On the basis of circumstantial evidence, 繁多 and 众多 may be synonyms because Youdao sends readers from the former to the latter.

Using Youdao to translate phrases doesn’t help, either. I thought the rule in Chinese was that adjectives of two or more syllables usually took 的 when they preceded their noun, but this does odd things to 繁多 and 众多, viz.

繁多的猫 “a cat in a wide range of” vs. 繁多猫 “many cats”
众多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 众多猫 “many cats”

[The Bing translator on my phone gives “a wide variety of cat” and “many cats” for the first two phrases in these pairs. On the other hand, using Youdao to translate “multitudinous cats” gives me 众多的猫. Bing also gives the same translation.]

I wonder whether quantifiers or quantifier-like words don’t take 的, or whether it’s just compounds of 多.

If I reverse the process in Youdao, and translate “numerous cats” into Chinese, I get 许多猫 “many cats” (but Bing gives me 很多猫). Would anything actually get me 繁多猫 or 众多猫 as a translation from English to Chinese? If I try to translate “various cats”, I get 各种各样的猫 (Youdao) or 格式各样的猫 (Bing), which strikes me as being closer to “all manner / sorts / types of cats” in English.

With a mass noun, I get the following:

繁多的黄油 “butter in a wide range of” vs. 繁多黄油 “various butter”
众多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 众多猫 “many butter”

Apart from the third phrase, I don’t know whether the rest are even grammatical in Chinese (regardless of the English translation). Again, reversing the process produces something different, with Youdao and Bing translating “a lot of butter” as 大量的黄油.

What about 好多 and 许多? As the example above showed, these seem to be used sans 的, but I’ll try both sorts of phrases.

好多的猫 “a lot of cat” vs. 好多猫 “a lot of cat”
许多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 许多猫 “many cats”

Reversing the process again, Youdao produces 很多猫 for “a lot of cats” while Bing gives me 多猫. For “many of the cats”, Youdao returns 许多猫, but perhaps Chinese makes no distinction between “many of a whole” (e.g. many cats) and “many of a part” (e.g. many of the cats). Bing translates this phrase as 很多人的猫 and Youdao translates it back into English as “many cats”.

Again, let’s look at what happens when these words are used with mass nouns.

好多的黄油 “a lot of butter” vs. 好多黄油 “a lot of butter”
许多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 许多猫 “a lot of butter”

The results from Youdao are a good deal more uniform. Bing translates 好多黄油 as “quantity of butter” and the rest as “lots of / a lot of butter”. But reversing the process in either Youdao or Bing gets 大量的黄油 again.

What, though, is the generic form for “a lot of / much / many” in Chinese, which could be used under any circumstance? 许多? 多 alone? Some modifier + 多? A perusal of my sources doesn’t answer these questions.

As I said at the outset, Chinese seems to have half a dozen words for everything. The issue, again, is knowing how they are used and what their scope is, but I end this post with no definite answers.


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