in ,

Thieves, Knives, and Chiefs and English Plurals

Advertisement

Thieves, Knives, and Chiefs and English Plurals

English is rule-based. I repeat: Like all languages, English is rule-based.

A tweet recently appeared in my Twitter feed in which Merriam-Webster, the dictionary, touted the nonsense that English rejects order.

Because English rejects order. It actively opposes it. It lures order into an empty house and sets a series of Home Alone-style traps to hit it with paint cans and light its hair on fire. #AskMW

“Because English rejects order. It actively opposes it. It lures order into an empty house and sets a series of Home Alone-style traps to hit it with paint cans and light its hair on fire. #AskMW”

Advertisement

The absurd claim came in reply to a question about the plurals of <thief>, <knife>, and <chief>. One thief, two thieves. One knife, two knives. One chief, two chiefs. The noun <chief> affixes the <s> suffix to form the plural, which is a prototypical plural in Modern English. One cat, two cats. One hug, two hugs. One chocolate, two chocolates. The nouns <thief> and <knife> experience a consonant change plus the affixation of the <s> suffix to form the plural. Why?

One thief, two thieves, one knife, two knives. Why is the plural of chief 'chiefs'?

At first glance, the plural forms of <thief>, <knife>, and <chief> might appear disorderly. But the truth is easy to uncover.

Using Etymonline, I find that <thief> comes from Old English <þeof> meaning “thief, robber” and <knife> comes from late Old English <cnif>. The letter <þ> was later rewritten as <th> and <cn> as the digraph <kn>. I also find that <chief> comes from Old French <chief> around 1300.

Even if you know nothing about the history of the English language, you can easily see that the histories of the three words in question differ. <thief> and <knife> are older, developing from Old English forms. The year 1066, when the Normans invaded English, marks the end of the Old English period (although languages exist on a continuum with no definitive start or end dates between periods). <chief> is younger, arriving in English from Old French around 1300.

Words borrowed more recently tend to use prototypical morphology. For example, the noun <fjord> comes from Norwegian <fjord> from Old Norse <fjörðr> meaning “an inlet, estuary” around 1670s. Rather than using the Norwegian plurals <fjorder, fjordene, fjordar, fjordane>, the English <fjord> affixes the <s> suffix to form the plural <fjords>. The younger <chief> likewise affixes the <s> suffix to form the plural <chiefs>.

<thief> and <knife> are older words. Understanding the plural forms requires delving into Old English phonology. Relevant to <thief> and <knife> is the knowledge of Old English allophones. Allophones are a set of speech sounds that represent a single phoneme. For example, in Modern English, the alveolar flap [ɾ] is an allophone of /t/ and /d/. Both [mɛtəl] and [mɛɾəl] are possible pronunciations of <metal>, and both [mɛdəl] and [mɛɾəl] are possible pronunciations of <medal>. The [ɾ] is an allophone, which is why <metal> and <medal> can be homophonic. Is [mɛɾəl mɛɾəl] a medal made of metal (<metal medal>) or metal for medals (<medal metal>)?

In Old English, the fricatives /f/ had the voiced allophone [v] between vowels or voiced consonants. The nominative plural of <þeof> was <þeofas>. In the singular, the <f> spelled [f]. In the plural, the /f/ occurred between two vowels and thus spelled [v]. Likewise, the nominative plural of <cnif> was <cnifas>. In the singular, the <f> again spelled [f]. In the plural, the /f/ occurred between two vowels and thus also spelled [v]. As Old English developed into Middle English, the plurals of <þeof> and <cnif> remained. [v] stopped being an allophone of /f/. The singular forms were thus spelled <thief> and <knife> and the plural <thieves> and <knives> because, although the primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning, sounds do matter.

Other words from Old English similar to <thief~thieves> and <knife~knives> include <wif~wifian/wife~wive~wives>, <lif~lifian/life~live~lives>, <leaf~leafa/leaf~leaves~leaved>, <cealf~cealfian/calf~calve~calves>, and <wulf~wulfas/wolf~wolves>.

Nouns that end in <f> that take the <s> suffix in the plural often came into English later. Regularization, which refers to the language change in which irregular forms are replaced by regular forms, can also occur. For example, <eage> meant “eye” in Old English. The plural form was <eagan>. Old English <eage> developed into Middle English <eie> whose plural form was <eien>. Over time, regularization occurred, and the Modern English plural of <eye> is <eyes> rather than <*eyen>. Regularization, however, has not affected the plural of <ox>: <oxa~oxan> -> <oxe~oxen> -> <ox~oxen>.

That the plurals of <thief> and <knife> are <thieves> and <knives> while the plural of <chief> is <chiefs> does not mean English rejects order. Rather, the words entered the language at different times. Both <thief> and <knife> come from Old English prior to 1066 when [f] and [v] were allophones of /f/. <chief> is younger, arriving around 1300 from Old French.

Always remember that English is rule-based. If you think a form is a disorderly, irregular exception, you have not investigated the word enough yet.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Written by Heather Johnson

Heather is a writer, librarian, linguist, wife, and mother who loves her husband, children, dogs, and cat. She has a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in creative writing and master's degrees in library and information science and English studies with a concentration in linguistics.

The Word 'another' Is Not an Adjective

The Word ‘another’ Is Not an Adjective

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Lactation Cookies Recipe

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Lactation Cookies Recipe