Thursday, March 16, 2023

Fascination with Plurals

Languages are inherently messy things. With lots of exceptions to the rules. This leads to all sorts of questions like, "What, then, are all those rules for?" I was reminded of this on Monday when a student asked me about these three words:

  • hoi agathoi mathÄ“tai
  • The good disciples

He said, "Look at those endings. Why aren't they all -oi?" The answer is that grammatical agreement doesn't necessarily mean there will be agreement in spelling. 

English has its own fair share of weird plurals. What, for example, is the plural of "mongoose"? 

I'm reminded of that old tale about the zookeeper who wanted to buy a pair of these animals but wasn't sure what the plural was. So he wrote, "Please send me a mongoose. And while you're at it, please send me another." In Hebrew, the plural of "cherub" is "cherubim." Which made me chuckle the first time I read "cherubims" in the King James Version. (Yes, it actually uses that word.) 

An example you're probably more familiar with is "alumni," as in "I'm an alumni of Biola University." Alumni is actually plural. The correct singular form would be alumnus (for a man) and alumna (for a woman). "Data" is a plural noun, the singular being "datum." Yet we still say, "The data is clear." (Pedants, of course, will insist that we use the "correct" verb "are.") Ditto for "The criteria [plural noun] is ...." 

If you're really smart, you can tell me the plural of "vortex." But if you're a fairly normal human being, you probably can't. Oh, and did you know the plural of the Latin word "opus" is "opera"? Aaargh!!!!

Plurals are endlessly fascinating to language fanatics.