Hippopotami and paninis

English contains more foreign loan words than you can shake a stick at. In some cases both their singular and plural forms have been adopted, but sometimes only one of these forms makes it into English. For example, panini is the plural of panino, an Italian-style sandwich, but only the former is normally used in English – the plural paninis is quite common. In Italian the plural of pizza is pizze, but in English we say pizzas.

Some, though not all, of the unusual plural forms are regularised. Examples include, stadium, the plural of which is either stadia, or more commonly, stadiums. Formula, which can be pluralised as either formulae or formulas. Also kibbutz – kibbutzim/kibbutzes; octopus – octopi/octopuses; hippopotamus – hippopotami/hippopotamuses; index – indices/indexes; matrix – matrices/matrixes.

A few years ago I went to Sicily for a holiday. On arrival in Catania I felt a bit peckish so went to get something to eat at an airport café. In some Italian cafés you have to pay first, then you take the receipt to the food counter and pick up your food. I asked the guy behind the cash register for ‘uno panini‘, thinking I was asking for one sandwich. As I used the plural form (I’d forgetten the singular), he thought I was asking for two and charged me accordingly. I was quite surprised when the food counter guy handed me two sandwiches, but didn’t mind too much as I was very hungry by then.

Here’s a plural-related conundrum (plural conundra/conundrums) for you: the plural of child is children, the plural of ox is oxen. Can you think of any other English words with the same type of plural?

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

18 Responses to Hippopotami and paninis

  1. vector says:

    man > men
    woman > women

    (instead of mans/womans)

  2. Luther says:

    brother > brethren

  3. Bill Walsh says:

    Interestingly, octopi would have originally been etymologically incorrect (though clearly hallowed by long usage). Octopus is a Neo-Latin spelling of the Greek οκτωπους, so technically the plural could have been octopodes.

    Same with cactus which was κακτος and therefore could have ended up in English as cactoi in the plural. So there’s another reason to thank Latin…

    Ok, this isn’t really current English (though you occasionally run across it), but there is (or was) in fact one English word whose plural shares no letters with its singular. Any guesses?

  4. Steapenhyll says:

    brother, brethren

    the word “brethren” was displaced by the regular ‘s’ plural “brothers”, and took on a specialised meaning of comradery rather than describing a literal relationship of blood.

  5. Just eyeballing some of these other irregular plurals, some of these look like remnants of German (Anglo-Saxon?). Not only do they have that “-en” ending, but they also show the vowel changes (ablaut?) that you see in German.

    I wonder if that explains some of the stuff like “mouse” and “mice,” or “goose” and “geese”. Do these exhibit vowel changes in German too?

    I can go get a book of mine that teaches English to Spanish-speakers if you guys want…it probably has more.

  6. Benjamin says:

    Such a word really existed? Can’t think of one such word in any language… :/

    In German there’s the same problem with plurals: Mostly you pluralize the words just like you’d do in its mother tongue, thus cappuccino -> cappuccini.
    Sounds stupid to me, to adopt a word including its grammar, I mean German grammar is difficult enough, so why adopt even more rules from everywhere around the globe? And to just say “Cappuccinos” wouldn’t be bad, would it? Actually some people say it that way. I’d love if every word be just adjusted to German grammar, since it eases everything and other languaged do just the same; so why does German have to conserve grammar and spelling of mostly all loan words?
    In English you just pluralize “autobahn” with an -s, although there should be a -en at the end in German. In Spanish and Finnish I believe you adjust the spelling of any foreign word right after it’s used more commonly.

    In German we still use foreign spellings even after decades of usage of that word and most people seem to like that even: When the spelling reform told people to write “ph”, which sounds like [f], with “f” (Delphin – Delfin [dolphin]) some people immediately decided to boykott the whole reform, just because of the look of some new words… :/
    I just hope that the reform will still succeed, when the pupils now learning the new spelling in school will grow up…
    Logic in spelling and grammar isn’t everything, but if you have the possibility to create something logical, is there a reason not to do so and stick to the old and illogic version?
    I always wondered why English wasn’t reformed sometime. I mean, everyone knows, that English spelling is horrible, but apparently no major changes happened anytime. The only changes I know of are the American spellings of (French) words like “theater”, “center” where they switched “e” and “r”. Well, and “through” -> “thru”. Is there anything else? Were there any changes made in the UK?

  7. Suze says:

    Re: “Ok, this isn’t really current English (though you occasionally run across it), but there is (or was) in fact one English word whose plural shares no letters with its singular. Any guesses?”

    I believe this to be cow – kine. I’ve heard it once or twice used by older people in Dumfriesshire, where my mom lives.

    Oh, and just quickly on American spelling. A lot of that was down to Noah Webster, as a conscious effort to make American English different from British English. Some of his spelling changes could be justified by looking back at Latin or French words, while others were really made just for the sake of it. Much as G B Shaw was keen, there has been little serious enthusiasm for spelling reform in Britain, and few American spellings have become usual in Britain. (The few exceptions tend to be computing terms – e.g. a computer runs a program in Britain as elsewhere, but the British still watch a programme on television.)

  8. Bill Walsh says:

    Suze is correct! Cow/kine is right. And “cattle” actually isn’t much like cow either, though at least they’ve got a letter in common.

    Part of the reason that a spelling reform à l’allemande has never taken off in the Anglophone world is that we no longer have a standard accent around which to reform. We can’t make up a nynorsk style standard because there’s no Français Parisiènne or Hochdeutsch or the like that we all agree would be the standard for pronunciation to base the spelling around. At one point, you could have used London, I suppose, but that was long ago and far away. Plus, the English-speaking countries have never had Language Authorities like the Académie Française and the like to make these weighty decisions for us peons. Whether one thinks this good or bad is suggestive. : )

    Plus, hey, we’d lose all the cognate-clues for German speakers so that you’d know which nīt is a Nacht and which is a Knecht.

    (And I’m not a big fan of the new spelling reform in Germany. Just to pick one example, it’s much easier to rapidly distinguish daß from das than dass from das. But, hey, I’m a curmudgeon. : ) )

  9. Zachary R. says:

    At the moment, I can only think of nova/novae, person/people and in certain contexts ‘persons’, and fungus/fungi.

  10. TJ says:

    I think Arabic and German (and maybe Russian?) got the most irregular plurals at all ! 🙂
    Plural in Arabic is divided into masculine, faminine and there is a subgroup of plurals (somehow a lot) that is usually linked to masculine plurals but are irregular in their formulation (or as we call it “Takseer,” meaning “breaking”).
    Usually here when we listen to some persian person trying to speak arabic (or let’s say our dialect) he would mainly make the wrong type of plural or change the gender of the word but anyway we understand him and this is only a reflection from his own mother tongue, where in persian the words do not have a gender and there is no definite article.
    In literature or classical Arabic the type of the plural is extremely important to make the right pronunciation of the word. For example, the word “Al-Qaa’iloon” (the sayers) which is a regular masculine plural (the -oon is the sign of plural here). In dative form it would be something like “Al-Qaa’ileen” (the -een is the sign of dative here). But let’s take a word like “Al-Rajul” (the man) the plural is “Al-Rijaal” (irregular) and the dative would be “Al-Rijaali” (notice the “I” at the end) and this sign is actually the dative sign for normal words in general and hence the words of irregular plurals are treated like any other word in the sentence concerning its last sign of vowel, but other forms of plurals got some other concerns.

    By the way, in Arabic we have some words that have indeed different plural sometimes (away from the actual word) or sometimes there is no singe word for plural but we use a close or a phrase to make the plural.
    Imra’ah (woman)/ Nisaa’ (women) [isn’t like bean/mná in irish?].
    Ikhtaboot (octobus)/ Majmoo?at Ikhtaboot (group of Octobi) [sometimes it’s Ukhtuboot]. There are also some words that have no plurals at all like in english (like Milk in english, also Haleeb which means Milk also has no plural in Arabic).

  11. Paul says:

    “Words with no plurals”: mass nouns? Milk, rice, sand, water (usually), and I think formerly peas(s), cherries …

    -en plurals: these are still quite common, I think, in some northern dialects of England (reflecting the influence of old Norse, I assume): my Grandmother, who was from Yorkshire, used to say one shoe / two shoeën*, etc …

    * I know, but how would YOU spell it ?!

  12. TJ says:

    exactly 🙂
    but in arabic, Sand and Water got plurals 🙂
    Sand: Raml/Rimaal (irregular)
    Water: Maa’ / Miyaah (irregular as well)

  13. Simon says:

    The -en plural I was thinking of was aurochs/aurochsen (Bos primigenius) – an extinct type of large, wild cattle* that once lived in parts of North Africa, Europe and South West Asia. An alternative plural form is urus.

    *There’s a word without a singular form. You can say one cow, bull or calf, but not one cattle.

    There are many different types of plurals in the Celtic languages, some of which are highly irregular. In Irish, for example, woman = bean, women = mná (ban in the genitive), house = teach, houses = tithe ( in the genitive).

    In Welsh some words become shorter when pluarlized: pysgoden/pysgod (fish), llygoden/llygod (mouse/mice), pioden/piod (magpie/magpies). Other unusual plurals include llaw/dwylo (hand/hands), ci/cŵn (dog/dogs), tŷ/tai (house/houses), and brawd/brodyr (brother/brothers). Dwylo is actually a dual and means ‘a pair of hands’. The regular plural for hands is llawiou. Other duals in Welsh include deuddydd (two days) and deufis (two months).

  14. Podolsky says:

    In Arabic loanwords enter one of the native patterns, so plural of bank is bunuuk, like native bayt ‘house’ – buyuut.
    This habit might create a problem: does basaakiit mean boy-scouts or biscuits?

  15. TJ says:

    Podolsky>> in Arabic actually Biscuit has no plural but if it comes alone by itself then it denotes some “biscuits” but to say “a biscuit” in Arabic you have to say literally: a PIECE of biscuit.
    The boy-scout is in fact called “Shibl” (which is the name of the lion’s son)
    and the girl-scout is called “Zahrah” (which means “flower”)
    the scouts team is called Kash’shaafah.

    plurals: Shibl -> Ashbaal, Zahrah -> Zuhuur

  16. In response to “cactus” and “cacti” being from Greek:

    The plural of κάκτος is κάκτοι (at least in the nominative), but this is pronounced [kakti] in Modern Greek anyway, and [kakty] in Koine Greek. Even with the word being transferred through Latin, we still pronounce the last syllable as [ai] instead of [i]!

    I must say I favor the odd plurals in English, since it gives the language character, I think. I wouldn’t dream of saying “hippopotamuses”!

  17. TJ says:

    Hinc illa lacrimAE

  18. Paul Engless says:

    In Italian ‘loaf’ is pagnotta while ‘to loaf’ becomes ‘fare niente’.

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