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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

One pizza, two...?

There's been quite a lot of response to my recent post about the plural of "antenna", some of it of the "shock, horror" variety. The prestige of Latin and Greek plurals has a strong hold on our psyches. Quick, now, what's the plural of "psyche" in ancient Greek? Can you imagine how complicated life would be if we had to know the plural in the original language of every word in English. WAY too complicated, especially when there's that handy English regular -(e)s ending just begging to be used. So we don't phone up the pizza place and order "two large pizze" or stop in our local coffee shop to ask for "two cappuccini". Other languages apply their own pluralization rules when they borrow foreign words, too; the plural of the French word "cameraman" is "cameramans".
Someone asked about "index". Was I in favour of "indexes" rather than "indices"? Well, yes, I am. Not that my being "in favour" of one thing or another has any importance; it's general usage that decides these things.
Here's the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

index

noun  ( pl. indexes or esp. in technical use indices   'IndIsi:z )


If you consult the OED, you will discover that "indexes" (or even, gasp, in the 1500s,"index's") has been around for centuries, and the OED too gives "indexes" as the first plural of the word, stating quite baldly that it is the usual plural for the alphabetical listing.  Now, usage has it that we prefer "indices" for the "sign or indication of something" sense, and when you think of it, that sense hardly exists in the singular anymore. Mathematical and scientific usage favours "indices", but that is just part of the phenomenon of Latin and Greek plurals being more resilient in those fields than in general usage.  I wonder how many mathematicians and scientists nowadays have ever studied Greek or Latin; I doubt that this trend will continue.
In the face of the overwhelming weight of regular English plurals, trying to maintain a foreign plural in English is an uphill battle with few if any benefits.
For more on the history of the word "index", see this post.






4 comments:

  1. What's the singular of "biceps"?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am ready to acknowledge: I have studied neither Greek nor Latin, but it was not my fault. Others decided I shouldn't. And it's hard to disagree with them, for more than just one reason!

    ReplyDelete
  3. re "Now, usage has it that we prefer "indices" for the "sign or indication of something" sense"

    Oh good! I'm in step with current usage. Please tell 'usage' not to change while I'm not paying attention.

    ReplyDelete
  4. To Anonymous: ah, biceps, thereby hangs a tale suitable for another post. Technically the singular is biceps, but it seems to be fighting a losing battle against bicep.

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.