Who cares about Latin plurals?

Apparently a lot of people do. You know this. You’ve probably heard something along the lines of what is said in the following tweet:

Mike Pope had a nice response:

But this got me thinking: It’s a bit of slippery slope to say that we have to follow the pluralization rules for Latin with (some) Latin words. Why stop with Latin? English has taken words from other languages as well. And why stop at pluralization? Latin has endings for when a word was used as a subject or object (if my rudimentary Latin is correct). So why not bring those along too? I wrote a joking response to point this out:

As fate would have it, James Harbeck published an article on this very topic on the very same day that these tweets appeared. And Mike Pope published a similar blog post a while ago. I’m not going to restate what they say – you should go read their posts. Instead, I’d like to second what Dr Sarah Shulist responded with and add to it:

The reason that we are told to follow the Latin’s pluralization methods for words from Latin is because Latin has long been held in high prestige by educators and others who wield power in society and language learning. That’s it. If Finnish was held in as high regard as Latin, then we would have people saying it’s incorrect to use saunas because the plural form in Finnish is saunat. But Finnish is not held in the same regard as Latin. Same goes for almost every other language.

But when you think about it, requiring people to use Latin plurals is actually pretty… lazy. We’re talking about noun morphology and in English there are really only a few things we can do to words that are nouns. I know I’m oversimplifying things here, but stay with me. We can:

  • make nouns plural (hero >> heroes)
  • add a genitive marker (hero >> hero’s)
  • add prefixes and suffixes (superhero, heroism, etc.)

Is anyone arguing for applying the Latin genitive to words from Latin? Of course not. Because the prescription that you must use Latin plurals with words from Latin isn’t about grammar at all. It’s about language policing and linguistic discrimination. It’s about putting other people down for following English grammar instead of Latin grammar WHEN THEY’RE SPEAKING ENGLISH. And like most forms of discrimination, it’s lazy thinking. It is only one aspect of noun morphology applied to only some words from pretty much only one language.

To be clear: I’m not saying that it’s discriminatory to use a word from another language and not follow the morphology of that language. It’s kind of the opposite of that. To say that people must follow the pluralization morphology of Latin when they use a word from Latin is classist. When people are speaking English, there is nothing wrong with them using plain old English morphology to pluralize nouns. And, yes, that holds for words from Latin too. It’s possible that people don’t realize that they’re practicing linguistic discrimination when they play the pedant card with words from Latin, but that’s not an excuse. Maybe next time point out that the hill they are dying on isn’t so much a mighty mountain as it is a puny pismire hill.

Anyway, by far the most pragmatic reply was from Marie Georghiou:

Marie wins.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

2 thoughts on “Who cares about Latin plurals?”

  1. So maybe this is unique to women’s colleges or the newest trend in gender-inclusivity, but nowadays in fact you are more likely to hear ‘alums’. This is not laziness or ignorance of the Latin forms, but in fact a very conscious way of rejecting both the assumption that nouns, even those describing people, have to be gendered at all and the gender binary in general. Anyway, it seems that the English plural -s might be most appropriate after all, regardless of the origin language!

    1. Oh, I didn’t even think of that for “alum”. Of course! Thank you, SusE, for pointing this out. Gender is something that has come along with some Latin verbs. But you’re right and the OED backs you up. At the entry for “alum” (http://www.oed.com.libproxy.helsinki.fi/view/Entry/248400), the OED marks it as “Chiefly U.S.” English and says “Originally in nonstandard use, or as a graphic abbreviation. Now usually as a gender-neutral alternative to alumnus n. or alumna n.” How about that? Gender-neutral English nouns FTW.

      Also, the OED has a citation from ’77 for plural “alums” – not 1977, but 1877! I’d be willing to bet, though, that since then the usage has spread due to women’s colleges, the feminist and women’s rights movements, and general gender-inclusivity of our time, as you pointed out.

      To be clear, though, I wasn’t saying that people who apply English plurals to words from Latin are lazy. I think they’re just doing what’s natural all over the world – this word has entered the English language and they are using English morphology on it. I think the pedant’s argument is lazy – that it’s lazy to follow only this one tiny aspect of Latin morphology, and then to only follow it with some words from Latin but not others. That’s why I think the pedants need to lay down their arms on this one.

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