or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Me Two

In Friday's posting I wrote about English plurals and how, in some newly borrowed words such as "mafioso", we still used the pluralization system of the originating language. Reader Bright Beak wrote:

The thing is, media is the plural already of medium therefore, by MY calculations, medias is a dual-plural, and not allowed by any rules of grammar! I still cannot cope with anything but formula/formulae, and was as intolerant before I took Latin!

Oh, you don't have to tell me. I know that "media" is plural, and so is "data", and "bacteria", but they're all increasingly being treated in English as if they were singular, with the plural's being formed, if it's formed at all--it usually isn't, in the case of "data"--in the usual English manner, by adding an "-s" onto the end. It's horrible, yes, but there's no escaping it. This is what happens when Latin is no longer taught in the schools, I suppose. (On the other hand, they do have plenty of company; "agenda" is really not seen as a plural any more at all, though it is the plural of the obsolete "agend" or of "agendum", and likewise with "candelabra"/"candelabrum". "Agenda" has been singular, with the plural "agendas", for about a hundred years now, and singular "candelabra" with plural "candelabras" has been with us for almost two hundred. This is not a new phenomenon.)

Getting back to "mafioso" for a second, I wouldn't have had any real problem if Walcott had written "mafioso" and then used "mafiosos" as a plural (he wrongly used "mafiosi" as a singular noun); I might not have liked it, but frankly, that's what we usually do when we import words nowadays--we pluralize them as if they were native. "Mafioso"/"mafiosi" is an unusual example: we don't generally treat Italian words, particularly food words (by far the largest category of Italian imports into English), as if they were still Italian--we don't pluralize "cappuccino" as "cappuccini", "bruschetta" as "bruschette", or "gelato" as "gelati" (but, oddly, we do generally, though not always, pluralize "antipasto" into the correct-for-Italian "antipasti"). Odder still, and directly to the point regarding "media", we didn't for some reason inherit "panino" as the correct singular for a popular grilled sandwich but instead the plural "panini", which we then pluralized in the natural fashion as "paninis".

As is so often the case in English, there just aren't any hard-and-fast rules about pluralization. The most you can say is that historically, we absorbed a variety of pluralizations from a variety of languages, but nowadays we usually just slap an "-s" onto the end of everything to make it plural, which, though we don't always have to like it, is probably as it should be. After all, do we really want to worry about correctly pluralizing, say, Hungarian imports such as "paprika" and "goulash", or borrowings from Farsi such as "khaki" and "divan"? Better to just ess 'em all up and be done with it.

The wonderful Wikipedia has this useful page on the varieties of English pluralizations, and here's a link to an amusing CBC News article about just how confusing and open for debate pluralization is in Canadian English.


Blogger Bright Beak said...

Can I still whimper at the travesty that is English? ;)

bb - thinking she'd prefer if all words did plural & other orthographic changes as if in the original language(s)...
*whimper*pout* ;)

Sunday, May 14, 2006 7:03:00 PM  

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