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The formation of plurals, from sheep to minotaurs

It’s probably safe to say that most of us don’t give much thought to how plural nouns are formed in English. In fact, add –s or –es, whatever a word’s origin or meaning, might be one of the easiest grammatical rules in the language. So we have book / books, church / churches, hula / hulas, and crepe / crepes. Whether a child or an adult, every language learner eventually learns that there is a small group of nouns that change (or mutate) their root vowel, such as mouse / mice and foot /feet. A smaller group of relics like ox /oxen. And an even smaller group of non-English borrowings that technically follow the grammar of their original language, though English speakers often normalize them. The plural of phenomenon is thus prescribed as phenomena, though we sometimes hear phenomenons.

Why doesn’t the plural of sheep take an ‘s’?

Then there’s a group of nouns whose plurals have no surface marking at all. If you have more than one swine, you still have swine. And the same is true for sheep, deer, and folk. All these words originated, in the earliest Germanic language, in a class of what are called long-stem nouns, meaning they either had long vowels (as sheep did) or short vowels followed by two consonants (as folk did). For whatever reasons – and these probably had to do with the shape of the word – such nouns did not mark their plurals, though over time, some of these non-marked plurals picked up an –s by analogy with words like book. The plural of thing today is thus things and not thing, as it historically would have been.

As these examples indicate, this group of nouns contained a number of words relating to animals. Horse also was a member and therefore also originally had a non-marked plural, but through analogy it acquired the –s characteristic of most English nouns. Other animal words did the opposite: though not having a long stem, they effectively joined that class by dropping their –s through analogy. Today, a successful angler catches fish, whether that means one fish or many. And still other animal words follow the usual pattern — dog / dogs, cat / cats – if only because they do not have long stems.

Half man, half bull

Then there’s the Minotaur, a creature from classical mythology. According to several sources, Minos of Crete prayed for Poseidon to send a bull that would confirm his right to be king. When the bull appeared, however, Minos thought it so handsome that he refrained from sacrificing it. In retaliation, an enraged Poseidon then caused Minos’s wife, Passiphaë, to fall in love with the bull, and with the aid of the craftsman Daedalus, she disguised herself as a cow. The product of this fantastic union was the minotaur, half man and half bull. It’s the minotaur for which Daedalus built the labyrinth, where it received (and slaughtered) a regular tribute of Athenian youths until Theseus was able to slay it.

Minotaur as metaphor

Theseus went on to many other adventures, but it’s the word for his monstrous first victim that interests me here. Composed from the elements Μινώς and ταῦρος, minotaur in Greek simply means ‘the bull of Minos’. Rarely does a word convey its meaning so well. And rarely is a word’s meaning so narrowly circumscribed. Minotaur might be used metaphorically, of course, but in ancient Greek it’s a proper noun with a single referent. Say Μινώταυρος, and you’ve necessarily said ‘the bull of Minos’. As a result, while grammatically the noun can be turned into the plural Μινώταυροι (minotauroi), conceptually the word really shouldn’t have a plural. It does, because despite the singularity of the minotaur, the creature came to be understood to represent an entire species. And so images of minotaurs populate ancient Greek art, while the historian Plutarch linked minotaurs with sphinxes and centaurs (which always were species) as the offspring of women who ran ‘mad after male beasts’.

Μινώταυρος entered Latin as minotaurus, whose plural, by regular grammatical transformation, was minotauri. The word brought the story of Minos and Theseus with it; in his Metamorphoses Ovid tells a particularly powerful version. But minotaurus also brought the notion of a species and not just an individual, and in fact minotauri were one of the images that appeared on Roman military standards. While references to the story of King Minos persist – Dante encounters the original minotaur in the Inferno – so, too, does this generalizing pattern, with the result that the creature seems gradually to have lost most of its connection to its originally monstrous origins. In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, minotaurs support the White Witch, making them wicked and dangerous but not perversions of nature in the way the original Μινώταυρος was.

Today, we encounter the species in all manner of games and fantasy novels. And since it is a species with more than one member, it requires a plural. Given the word’s origins, this plural could be minotauroi or minotauri, just as the plural of radius is radii and, the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, the plural of hippopotamus can be hippopotami, reflecting that word’s Latin borrowing rather than its Greek original. Or, on the model of long-stem nouns referring to beasts, the plural could be minotaur. But both dictionary and usage alike in fact suggest that the common model prevails. If you have more than one minotaur, you will have minotaurs.

Sanitizing history

All this tells us two familiar things about English. First, there is order and not randomness in how its grammar works. We say three sheep for reasons of inherited historical morphology, and we say three fish because later ancestors systematically analogized. And second, this order is produced not by some kind of a language despot but by the usage of English speakers, who have competing interests and follow competing impulses. In the case of minotaur, we forget the word’s etymology and animal reference, as well as the social and sexual implications of its extraordinary origin, and remember only that in English, many nouns form their plurals by adding –s. By nativizing Μινώταυρος, we have sanitized its reference and erased its history. Sometimes, how we form plurals really can matter.