OCTOPI is not a Latin Plural! End the madness!

This week I am going to be pretty nerdy by not only being a Classics nerd, but also a grammar nerd. The topic of the week is Latin plurals in the English language. For those classicists thinking you’ve read too much on this, stick with me because there will be a part for you too. There are many words in English that derive from Latin words and in some cases these words keep their native plural ending. I have found that people who are aware of this tend to follow the rule that if a word ends in “a” it is the plural and the singular must end in “um” like medium and media (there are exceptions!). These plurals are often considered also to be the singular in the English language because of common use; this is also the case with datum  and data. Here is a short list of words that follow the “um” and “a” rule, although in many cases the “a” ending can be singular or plural:

  • Medium, media (media can be singular)
  • Datum, data (data can be singular)
  • Forum, fora (can add “s” to forum for plural)
  • Memorandum, memoranda
  • Agendum, agenda (my favorite: “agendum” has become obsolete and I stand by my theory that this is only because nobody has only one thing that must be done)

Some at this point might be interested in why one would change the “um” to an “a” rather than just add “s.”  The reason for this is a holdover from the word’s ancient language origins. Latin is an inflected language in which nouns are declined to denote their function in a sentence as opposed to relying on word order. In Latin there are different cases for different functions. The nominative case is the one used for the subject of a sentence and it is also where these English plurals come into play. As if that isn’t confusing enough there are genders assigned to different words. The above example is the 2nd declension neuter gender. In this declension/gender the nominative singular ends in “um” and the plural ends in “a.” The 2nd declension masculine and 1st declension feminine have different nominative endings. In the masculine the endings are “us” and “i” (again be careful exceptions exist which will be named later). The following English plurals come from the 2nd declension masculine:

  • Alumnus, alumni
  • Focus, foci
  • Fungus, fungi
  • Radius, radii

The 1st declension feminine nominative endings are “a” and “ae.”

  • Alumna, alumnae
  • Formula, formulae (although commonly formulas)

Lastly there are some weird English plurals that come from the 3rd declension and tend to end in “es.”

  • Matrix, matrices
  • Index, indices
  • Axis, axes
  • Crisis, crises

Classicists and those just learning Latin and learning of this rule this part is for you. I commonly hear people who know Latin use the wrong plural because they think everything is a Latin plural. NOT ALL WORDS WORK LIKE THIS!

  • Status does not become stati. The proper plural is statuses. I see this one most frequently.
  • Campus while it has a Latin plural campi should be transformed to campuses because in some places campi is considered wrong while campuses is never considered wrong (well except in Latin class of course).
  • Octopus does not become octopi in the plural! While this is commonly used in speech it is wrong. Use octopuses because that is the commonly accepted term, but if you want to be really smart use octopodes (which MSword doesn’t accept as a proper word). Octopodes  is the proper Greek plural because this is a Latinized, Greek word.
  • Platypus works the same as octopus.

These are just some of my favorite Latin plurals that either get ignored or misused all of the time. There are, of course, many other words with funky plurals and not all of them are from Latin or, even, Greek. The best way to know about a word’s plural is to look it up in a dictionary (well search it on dictionary.com, I mean really who owns a dictionary anymore). Etymology.com is also pretty awesome for learning the origin of a word.

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3 thoughts on “OCTOPI is not a Latin Plural! End the madness!

  1. scientist says:

    Excellent post! My thoughts, all inconsistencies are due to lingual freedoms between: Germanic languages, free-of masculine/feminine possessions & plural rules (s vs. i) vs.; Romantic Languages [direct-from-Latin] which retain Latin’s grammatical rules.

    Re: English, a Germanic Language, contains many Latin words, only by Roman Imperial Invasion 2,000 years ago. The Latin ‘-us’ suffix indicates male, with an ‘I’ for plural. English holds no such translation.

    Re: The Germanic plural for ‘people/folk’ does not indicate gender; as opposed to the (Latin) Spanish ‘Ellos or Ellas’- all gender specific (unless one male exists, becoming Ellos). Hence: an I vs S (English/Latin-plural rules) remain free-reign 2,000 years-after.

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