What’s the plural of octopus? Everybody I’ve asked recently (about ten native speakers in the last month) has replied with either “octopuses” or both “octopuses” and “octopi.” I must confess, I would have probably answered with “octopi,” if it weren’t for the QI episode where Fry explained that “octopuses,” is perfectly acceptable in English, as well as “octopodes” in Greek. He continued to discuss that octopi is “wrong” because octopus comes from Greek, not Latin. In this post, I’m exploring plurals of nouns of Greek origin.
Familiar Plurals of Greek Origin
Of course there are many words in English that take irregular plural forms e.g. child/chidren, leaf/leaves, sheep/sheep, but these are not of Greek origin. So how do we know? We don’t! At least not natively. Irregulars just have be memorized through education. The two families of Greek plurals:
-sis –> -ses
analysis/analyses, thesis/theses, crisis/crises
-on –> -a
… [these] Greek-inspired plurals in a sense are still not part of the English language. They are not acquired as part of the mother tongue in childhood, and are uncommon in everyday speech among nonacademic adults. Instead they are learned in school together with the Pythagorean theorem and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Since they follow no living rule, and people couldn’t have memorized them unless they went to the right schools and read the rights books, they are shibboleths of membership in the educated elite and gotcha! material for pedants and know-it-alls… (Pinker, 1999)
Misapplied Declension from Latin
As with octopus/octopi example, I’ve discovered from my web search that platypus/platypi is also “wrong,” via the Latin -us –> -i rule misapplied to roots of Greek origin. This hypercorrection is probably due the preponderance of plurals that employ the correct application of the rule (declension) as in:
As with octopus, the –pus in platypus is Greek, meaning foot, so the plural should transform into –podes (feet), producing the forms octopodes and platypodes. I suppose if I were to meet a biological taxonomist, I might encounter these forms (and perhaps others which I would have never imagined/guessed).
I can only think of one other word that uses a suffix of the same root: antipode, which I learned from a video game I enjoyed as an adolescent. I’ve always pronounced antipode as /ˈentəˌpo:d/ which seemed pretty cut-and-dried. But then later I found discovered the pluralized form antipodes is pronounced /enˈtipəˌdi:z/ as in “Doug is a residence of both Australia and New Zealand, the Antipodes.” The difference in pronunciation of antipode/antipodes reminded me of our pronunciations of divine/divinity or semen/seminal.
So, as expected, the pronunciation of octopodes and platypodes matches that of antipodes, namely /ʌkˈtopəˌdi:z/ and /pleˈtipəˌdi:z/ respectively. I doubt most people I talk to would understand me if I were to use these forms in normal conversation.
What’s also very interesting is the singular antipode is actually an “incorrect” back-formation of the pluralized form antipodes. The “correct” singular should be antipus!
(EDIT — 1 August 2013, removed asparagus/asparagi from the beginning of this section)
Preference to Rule (Anglicization)
Apparently, nGram Viewer didn’t yield a single result for platypodes in any of the Google corpora. From further web-search of these two erudite -podes plurals, usage seemed to be limited to academic work or language-musers. It’s hard to imagine starting a conversation with the topic of cute Antipodean platypodes without feeling tongue-twishted or awkward.
From a descriptivist point of view, these erudite forms probably cause more confusion or amusement than communication. I wonder if there are any prescriptivists actively promoting these rare forms. At the same time, I’m not so sure that octopodes and platypodes are in such great danger that I should advocate their usage either.