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The (Norse) Epic of the English Plural S

April, 2021 Language Matters

At first glance, pluralizing words in English might look trivially easy. All you need to do is add a final -s: one word, two words. Unfortunately for ESL learners, though, it doesn’t take long at all for English speakers to start adding exceptions. We use plenty of irregular plural forms too, like one child, two children and one mouse, two mice. This Language Matters instalment looks into the linguistic tale of why the final -s is the dominant way to mark plural nouns in English, but not the only one.

Introduction: The Puzzle of the Plural S

Our story begins with a little-known fact: Plural markers can evolve and shift over time. To get a sense of how dramatic the results can be, consider the following hypothetical. If you opened a newspaper this evening to pass the time, and found these words, you’d probably feel rightly confused:

As I walked my dog past the long row of tiny house, schoolchildren were finishing their scrambled eggru and packing up their beek.

This hypothetical sentence only sounds odd because it doesn’t pluralize its nouns the way Modern English speakers are used to. In Old English, people did indeed say one house and two house, one egg and two eggru, one book and two beek. These days, though, we pluralize all of those words by simply tacking on a final -s: two houses, two eggs, two books.

Even then, puzzles remain. Old English speakers also said one sheep and two sheepru, but we don’t count one sheep, two sheeps today. We just say two sheep. Like it or not, the accidents of the evolution of English have left us holding a bit of a mixed bag, when it comes to our markers for pluralization. In previous Language Matters articles, for example, we’ve touched on the idiosyncrasies of loanwords like data and criteria—foreign terms that remain loyal to their native pluralization systems, however unevenly. As we’ll soon see, though, the homegrown form of the plural -s has its own wandering story, and its own little quirks.

The Origin of the Plural S

Linguists have floated a few ideas about how English got its plural -s. The simplest and most popular explanation, though, is that it was basically already there, in the form of the language’s archaic inflections. Old English was a highly inflected language, which means it often added endings to flag the grammatical functions of words. As an Old English speaker, you couldn’t simply have a dog and take walks with your dog. If you had a hund (nominative), you’d care for the needs of your hundes (genitive). You’d give treats to your hunde (dative), and walk your hund (accusative).

As you may have noticed, the Old English nominative and accusative forms were exactly the same, and this is important for our story here, because the same was true for the plural forms of words in the same class. Dogs (nominative hundas) liked to take walks, and Old English speakers needed to walk their hundas (accusative). Over time, English shed most of these inflected endings, unlike its linguistic relative German, which still uses them to mark distinctions like treating dogs (accusative Hunde) versus giving treats to dogs (dative Hunden). Only the plural marker -as seems to have been deemed useful enough to keep in English, as -es and eventually just -s. Middle English speakers therefore continued to say one hound and two hounds, even as the other inflected noun endings dropped away.

The Triumph of the Plural S

It’s not perfectly clear how -s crowded out so many other plural markers, but one common explanation says the process was accelerated by—believe it or not—the Vikings. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Norse newcomers changed the face of England forever through powerful waves of invasion and intermarriage. Linguistically speaking, one of their most lasting contributions may have been their impatience with irregular English plurals. As indicated above, Old English speakers were well on their way to saying one hound and two hounds, but they also had more idiosyncratic systems in daily use. They counted one name and two namen, one door and two doora, one goat and two gat, and so on. Sociolinguists (experts in the social aspects of language) have suggested that the Viking newcomers and their growing mixed families preferred to pluralize everything the easy way when they could get away with it, with the simple addition of that final -s sound. The shift does indeed seem to have taken hold sooner in the northern areas most impacted by Norse settlement. The spread of the plural -s may therefore be the product of the Vikings’ ESL struggles, perhaps in concert with a general trend toward standardization, the influence of the French plural -s, etc.

However it took root, the new simplified system seems to have worked and appealed to people, because over time it largely erased the English language’s native irregular forms. As old words like children and oxen and teeth still remind us, irregular plural markers could sometimes survive when the nouns in question were common enough to stay familiar. All the same, people don’t go into bookstores today looking for cookbeek with recipes for Eggru Benedict. The plural -s dominates the field. At times, English has even invented new singular forms to accommodate this new system. Old English gardeners spoke, for example, of one green pease and two green peasen. Today we use peas for the plural because it sounded more and more like a plural word as centuries passed under the new system, and for the singular we use a 17th-century neologism: we speak of one pea.

Conclusion: Plurality in Action

The epic of the plural -s illustrates both the logic and the haphazardness of language. You might expect a linguistic distinction like one noun versus two nouns to be simple, if that’s what you’re used to. But as English reminds us here, languages can offer a plurality of plural forms, and a plurality of reasons for their development over time.

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