Sunday, February 12, 2006

Irregular Plurals

I've always thought irregular grammatical forms were really cool. There's something that shines through them, something aesthetic that refuses to be shoehorned into the pattern. There are (if I recall correctly) almost 200 irregular verbs in English, such as rise, rose, risen; or sink, sank, sunk.

Not near as many irregular plurals in English, though I've always appreciated those we have. Man, men; woman, women; child, children; ox, oxen; foot, feet; tooth, teeth; goose, geese; mouse, mice. Am I missing any?

There are also some words which are the same in both singular and plural: sheep, deer, fish; and I've seen usage which extends that practice to many animal names. I've also seen cannon used as a plural, as if a cannon were somehow wild game to be hunted.

There are some classes of nouns which end in an unvoiced consonant in the singular, and in the corresponding voiced consonant in the plural. Leaf, leaves; elf, elves, etc. Not all plurals of this sort are indicated in writing, and so if you're like me, they may not always occur to you: house, houses, where houses is pronounced like houzzes; or bath, baths where bath is pronounced with th as in thin, but baths is pronounced with th as in that.

And then there are the "imported" irregular plurals, many of them from Latin or Greek: radius, radii; spectrum, spectra; phenomenon, phenomena; criterion, criteria; antenna, antennae. I've got to confess, antennae doesn't sound right to me, and it seems I usually hear it on science shows for kids, where it's pronounced with artificial emphasis, as if to get it across to the kids that here's a word you'd better learn. Though even on those science shows, I don't know that they display any uniformity of pronunciation, as I seem to hear sometimes antennay, sometimes antenneye, and sometimes antennee. Much as I love irregular plurals, I tend to split the difference on this one by pronouncing it antennas.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous urthshu said...

Hrm. Well, you did miss an antiquated one: Brother, brethren. Possibly more of the irregulars are now antiquated.

Yet, there are new ones, too. When you mentioned house, I immediately thought of hizouse, hizzy. LOL

Sunday, February 12, 2006 5:53:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Another irregular plural I forgot— and maybe this is just my usage— is that I generally use people as the suppletive plural of person. (Suppletive: "taken from a completely different word root.") This would be more or less parallel to Russian, where if I remember correctly, the suppletive plural of человек is люди.

There are a few suppletive verb forms in English, such as go, went, gone; or is, was, been; and at least one suppletive adjective form in good, better, best. But I don't think English has any other suppletive plurals.

Sunday, February 12, 2006 6:13:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Irregular forms fan myself. There's an imported plural of some animal name, from the South Pacific I think -- the name said twice is the plural. I happened on it in a dictionary. It would take quite a while for me to dig it up.

I walked toward her,
My brain an irregular verb


- from I forget what poem by Gilbert Sorrentino

Monday, February 13, 2006 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Louse, lice.
Die, dice.

Suppletives: much & many.

Well, okay, "much" is a -- do they still call it "collective"? singular in form, but with discrete number considered non-applicable -- it's for a mass noun. "Many" has no singular, unless you count "many a man..." etc. and that's like the difference between "all" and "every". But in Spanish mucho means "much," while muchos means "many," and they count those as singular & plural, respectively.

Irregular demonstrative plurals: this, these; that, those. The pronouns all have irregular plurals.

Monday, February 13, 2006 11:28:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Ah, how could I have forgotten lice and dice?!

And if we allow for new coinages, there's another irregular plural from the world of computers: box, boxen.

The old -en plural ending still survives in oxen, children, and brethren; also in cow, kine; and I may be pulling this off the top of my head, but I don't think you'd have to go back even as far as the time of Shakespeare to find forms such as eye, eyen and shoe, shoon. (No, looking in Wikipedia, I find these plurals still survive as rare forms in some regional dialects.)

And among other "imported" plurals would be forms such as axis, axes; index, indices; schema, schemata; and from Hebrew, seraph, seraphim.

Actually, speaking of new coinages, if the grammarians will leave the language alone, new irregular forms tend to emerge, whether by deliberate coinage or spontaneously. In my own Midwestern American dialect of English, sneak, snuck is firmly established in everyday usage.

Also, I must confess, I know swim, swam, swum is good, long-established, idiomatic English; but swum just doens't sound to my ear like an actual word. "I have swum"? I'm sorry, I just can't for the life of me hear that and take it as grammatical English, even though I know it is. And I have no alternative to replace it with: I swim, I swam, I have... I'm sorry, when I come to "I have...", I just run into a brick wall.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006 7:19:00 AM  

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