Pluralizing Greek-Imported Nouns in Modern English

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
phenomenon/phenomena, criterion/criteria

… [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:

radius/radii
nucleus/nuclei
alumnus/alumni
locus/loci
stimulus/stimuli
fungus/fungi
focus/foci.

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)

The Anglicized Greek plurals octopuses and platypuses have been in use for at least two hundred years as well as the usage of octopi and platypi.  A quick Google nGram Viewer search yieldedImage

Image

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.

Conclusion

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.

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9 Responses to Pluralizing Greek-Imported Nouns in Modern English

  1. navalator says:

    I am afraid that you are writing as you speak, cryptically. The reader may not understand what the hell you are talking about via your presumptive introduction. It really needs reworking if your readers are gong to take you seriously.

    *Best regards,

    Frederick

    • cjkfung says:

      As I have written in my About page, I don’t seek a wide following. If I wanted to a much broader audience I would have chosen different topics to publish. I don’t plan to dumb down what I publish.

  2. Fred Harvey says:

    Making a statement clear is not dumbing down. It show the reader that you are a decent writer.

    • cjkfung says:

      Decent writing does depend on the person reading. So far, I’ve received only positive comments about my writing from my readers. When you say “the reader,” I imagine you are concerned about general readership or following (which is not what I seek in principle). To me, cryptic writing means obscure or mysterious writing and that is what I would expect at least occasionally. I don’t expect all of my readers to be able to fluently read International Phonetic Alphabets or to confirm or disconfirm my mathematical exercises. Dumbing down means to put into simpler terms without resorting to technical jargon or academic detail. I am not willing to do this. According to my Mirriam-Webster’s American Heritage Dictionary dumbing down has the following definition:

      Informal. simplify or reduce the intellectual content of something so as to make it accessible to a larger number of people.

      Given my objectives, I’m not certain that my writing really needs reworking if my readers are going to take me seriously.

      • Fred Harvey says:

        Writing in complete sentences is not dumbing down! It is just good grammar.

      • cjkfung says:

        Ooooh, now I understand. Still, I’m not in favor of using complete sentences as a rule while writing in this medium.

  3. Fred Harvey says:

    What on earth does the internet medium have to do with correct grammar? Do I understand that you would use correct grammar when writing for a newspaper, for example? Isn’t using bad grammar a bit insulting to your “medium” readers?

  4. cjkfung says:

    I’m not being paid to write this blog nor is it my priority to impress anybody with my writing. If were to write articles in newspapers, I would write in the style and grammar that would match the expectations of my employer. As I don’t advertise my blog as an authoritative repository of information or knowledge, I would not expect my readers to expect writing that would be comparable to more learned or official works. By using the blog (as opposed to commercial print media), I have much more linguistic versatility and freedom (I can use all the slang, foreign words, and cryptic language I desire).

  5. Pingback: The Plural(s) of Asparagus | Notes and Observations

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