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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Language snobs take note

John McIntyre, an editor at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent blog post about linguistic discrimination called “English without shame”. The whole post is great, but this paragraph stands out:

The Language Police, the Grammar Nazis, and the SNOOTS are, in fine, snobs, and I find it impossible to believe that language snobbery is nobler than snobbery about wealth, fashion, or family. It’s just one more method to score points against other people and prop up one’s self-regard.

Go read the whole post here.

Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics

For someone so progressive, Sam Smith is shamefully conservative with language.

In researching a book on English usage (called Junk English; review coming soon), I came across an article from 2007 by Sam Smith, the journalist, essayist and co-founder of Green Party. Smith’s article is a lesson in how to NOT write about language, as he gets a number of things wrong. One day I’ll write a general post about these kinds of articles, but for now, let’s go through Smith’s post and see where the train goes off the tracks.

The article starts with this:

Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”

Ugh. Like, gag me with a spoon. This kind of comment is a red flag inside a bell inside a whistle telling me that what is about to come is going to be a bunch of pretentious crap about the good ol’ days when people knew how to use The Language (a time which was probably also when Sam Smith was in his thirties; when he was looking forward to his life, not back on it) Continue reading “Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics”