Wordjoy: English plurals

These days English pluralizes nouns by adding -s, but it wasn’t always so. English has had several ways to pluralize over the centuries, and it’s a pleasure to tease the remnants of them out of our modern dialect.

English’s earliest form of pluralization was called umlaut plural. Basically, the vowel in the word would change. A handful of everyday nouns retain this irregular pluralization: man –> men, woman –> women, mouse –> mice, goose –> geese, foot –> feet.

Later the -r plurals came along. There are very few intact examples of this left in the language; in fact, none are coming to mind as I write this article, though in the next wave of pluralization a couple of them are still detectable as pre-formations.

That next wave is the imminently lovable -n pluralization. We still have ox –> oxen as a clear-cut example of this pluralization in our everyday vocabulary. In the north of England and in Scotland some of these plurals lasted longer than they did elsewhere in the Anglosphere. Shoe –> shoon, eye –> eyen or een, bee –> been, tree –> treen, and house –> housen. Treen is still used to describe housewares carved of wood. If you read Mary Webb’s masterpiece Precious Bane, you will hear Prue using the word housen more times than you can shake a stick at: bee-housen for beehives, beast-housen for barns and stables.

The rest of the surviving -n plurals are hybrids. Take for example children. This contains both the old -r pluralization child –> childer and the newer -n pluralization childer –> children.

The umlaut plural remains in some of these, too. The old word for cow was cu, which was umlaut-pluralized to cy, and then -n pluralized to kine. Likewise brother was umlaut-pluralized to brether, then -n pluralized to brethren.

Because I enjoy writing both old-timey dialects and Scottish dialects, the -n plurals are one of my very favorite groups of words. Can you think of any I left out?


3 thoughts on “Wordjoy: English plurals

  1. I just love your love of words – it’s one of the things that make your books so readable. I was raised in England where we spoke “the Queen’s English as she should be spoken”, and I had a mother who would correct me when she felt it necessary. Misuse of words and poor grammar always make me cringe when I read [or hear] it. My mother has been gone for well over 40 years, but she’s still around in my head.

  2. I’ve seen these before, except -n pluralization aside from oxen and the latter children style ones, but this was a lovely compilation.

    So, maybe “boxen” isn’t as wrong as it seems. 🙂

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