Funiculi, Funicula

Ngram antennaI woke up this morning thinking of larvae. Not the actual creatures, but the word. I moved on from there to hippopatomi and stigmata.

All of these, of course, are Latinate plurals adopted into English. Some are used more than others. What my waking brain was trying to discover was a pattern. Why do we tend to Anglicize some of these plural forms and let others be? And has anyone settled on the pronunciation of ae, and does it disappear at the same rate and the same time as the ligature, æ?

I’m sure someone has answers to all these questions. It isn’t I. I’m on my second cup of coffee, and not much farther along. What becomes obvious, once one begins scribbling down all the words in the Scrabble finder, is that technical and academic terms (vertebrae, alveoli, curriculum vitae) tend to preserve their Latin plurals. Common words (forums, formulas) tend to Anglicize. More intriguing, for me, are the common words that remain stubbornly Latinate or hang in the balance.

The plural of forum, for instance, was fora, for the most part, before 1900, whereas today it is little used. Funguses never had a chance against fungi. But virtuosos have lagged fairly consistently behind virtuosi, and there have always been just slightly more concertos than concerti.

For the most part, in my entirely eclectic survey, the feminine Latin ending loses, perhaps because we haven’t figured out the pronunciation. We speak of et ceteras, caesuras, and (when we speak of them at all) vaginas, not et ceterae, caesurae, and vaginae. Antennas, admittedly, gained ascendancy only after 1990. And the feminine plurals of things of which the singular is rarely spoken, like larvae and algae, get a pass. Masculine nouns ending in -us, meanwhile, tend to lag in their Anglicizing of the plural, perhaps because of the clumsiness of pronouncing papyruses rather than papyri (though there’s a pronunciation quibble on that last syllable also). Only hippopotamuses has stood a chance. It’s so much fun to say, especially in what we used to call op-talk.

I want to claim that neuter Latin plurals rule, but Google Ngrams, the source of all my knowledge here, is an imperfect tool. I think of atria as large lofty spaces in office buildings or McMansions, but there’s the tricky question of whether the word refers to anatomical structures of the heart, and those medical Latin terms do linger. We hardly think of data and criteria as plural forms, anymore. And the stigmata are frozen in Biblical terminology; it wouldn’t do to think of them as stigmatums. Still, I’d like to bet that if you are a singular noun ending in –um, you’ve hung on to your plural –a longer than your feminine (and most masculine) counterparts.

I like to keep my antennae up for such trivia, so anyone who can illuminate these multiple dilemmae should add their two denarii.



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