Wednesday, 12 January 2011

On analogy: Octopuses, Octopi, Octopodes, Emacsen

From a post on, Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper discusses the "correct" plural of octopus:

Octopus:octopi is a standard example illustrating ("false") analogy that I've used in class before. The story I've told goes like this: Octopus sounds like a Latin word, and so by analogy to Latin borrowings like syllabus:syllabi, alumnus:alumni, people often form its plural as octopi. But, so the standard story goes, it's not a borrowing from Latin, but rather from Greek, so octopi is technically incorrect. The proper Greek plural is rather octopodes.

[More technically, it is a borrowing from Latin, but the Latin word itself is a borrowing/coinage from Greek, and the Greek word would be (in nominative singular) ὀκτώπους (oktṓpous), whose (nominative) plural would be ὀκτώποδες (oktṓpodes). Given that it's a scientific name, it will in fact be a Latin word (albeit one of Greek origins). By modern Latin rules for Greek borrowings, it should be a third declension noun, and form its plural with -es. Thus the Latin forms are octopus:octopodes.]

In the video, however, Stamper makes the following arguments: (1) octopodes sounds rather pedantic (I think a good compromise here though is to pronounce it to rhyme with nodes), and (2) once a word is borrowed into English, it becomes an English word and so should form its plural according to the standard English rules for pluralisation, i.e. it should be octopuses.

In fact, though it is true that -s is the dominant plural ending in English, and thus the one usually used for borrowings and new coinages, it is not the only possibility. Even coinages don't always form plural with -s. For example, there is a powerful text-editing program called Emacs. Different varieties of this program have arisen, and thus a plural form is sometimes called for. And the standard plural used is Emacsen (by analogy to ox:oxen; cf. boxen and VAXen). The point being simply that  if even coinages don't always use the -s plural, then we needn't expect that borrowings should either. And therefore, nothing forces us to accept octopuses as the "correct" plural. [Caveat: of course there is no real "correct" plural for any word, aside from whatever people accept/use.]

But, as it stands, it would seem that the "correct" pluralshould be either octopuses, since that conforms to the dominant pluralisation rule for English, or else octopodes, since octopus is a coinage made from Greek components.

As one of the commenters to the boingboing post (Anon #80) points out though, there is in fact a case to be made for octopi as the "historically correct plural". The case is as follows: Linnaeus may have coined octopus ("eight foot (creature)") by analogy to the old Latin word for "octopus", namely polypus ("many foot (creature)"). Now polypus is obviously also a borrowing from Greek, but in Latin the normal plural of polypus was in fact polypi! (And, likewise, the plural of the modern scientific term polypus is also polypi). 

[The commenter goes on to add that even the Greeks sometimes treated πολύπους (polúpous) as a second declension noun (which would give it a nominative plural of πολύποι (polúpoi). So even the Romans might have had a precedent for their -i plural of polypus.]

So if octopus is seen as a modern "updating" of the original Latin word for "octopus" (polypus), then there is an interesting case to be made for octopi as the (historically) "correct" plural.


  1. While the revival of the long-dead n-declension (it was already something of a relic in Old English) is delightful, it must be said that it has not spread beyond these three words, and they are more in the nature of a language game than the normal use of English.

    And anyway, if we are going to swallow octopodes, can rhinocerotes be far behind? As Language Hat said Ton Nick Nicholas's blog to someone who objected to the hoi polloi, to speak English correctly, you don't need to know any other languages.

  2. The n-declension is used for at least a couple of technology-related items: I've seen linuxen and unixen. So it appears to be "spreadable" at least. Though you're correct that it is in the nature of a language-game; but that doesn't prevent people from using it in earnest as well.

    For octopus: I find octopuses aesthetically-displeasing somehow (though things like sourpusses of course seem fine). I don't recall ever using the plural of octopus outside of a linguistics-related discussion, but if I did, I think my unconscious impulse would be to use octopi (force of analogy) and not octopodes (or octopuses). (And, as in the post, I think the boingboing commenter makes an interesting case that octopi could actually be considered "historically correct" as well. Of course, again, historical correctness is of no real import for synchronic forms.)

    Of course, to speak English correctly, you don't (really) need to know any other languages (though you do need to know massive amounts of borrowed words, which involve different phonological & morphological rules from items inherited from Old English). But that doesn't prevent ("correct") English from using non-s plurals. And this includes borrowed words as well as native irregular plurals. E.g., I think most people would object to alumnuses (though I've not infrequently heard the hypercorrect alumnis) - though I don't mean to say that no-one would ever use it.

  3. Emacsen?? Ugh. That's never gonna fly. Sorry. If anything emacses is the correct answer especially for such a hyperspecific, rarely used word.

    As for our avoidance of octopodes, I think it's quite simple why: our brains can only handle so many layers of grammatical rules before we just say "Screw it!"

    The standard English plural is -s (despite other much less common plurals) and a standard Latin-specific "plural" used in English is -i. But imposing a special "Latin-loaned-from-a-Greek-loan plural" is too much needless brain processing. Some of us have a list of other things to do in the day. ;o) Just because a word is loaned doesn't mean an entire grammar has to be too.

  4. @Glen: But people do use Emacsen.

    On octopodes - what grammatical rules are needed? Just memorise that the plural of octopus is octopodes. Just as we memorise the plural of ox is oxen. No additional processing required! No need for additional grammars!

    But really what this post is about is the possible "historic correctness" of octopi.

  5. Yes, many dweebs with no grammatical skills and a need to join tech cults do indeed insist on being annoying and using emacsen, this is true. Lol.

    But seriously, who here believes that this stupid fad is going to live past 2020? I'd be super shocked if it did.

  6. It would be hard to find a less convincing example of regular Latin plural formulation than syllabus-syllabi. It's a ghost word invented in English a few hundred years ago. it's based on a corrupt reading in Cicero.

  7. @nycguy: Fair enough. But alumnus and syllabus are the two Latinate-us-with-i-plurals words in English that come to mind, whatever their Latin antiquity (or lack thereof). I suppose cactus-cacti be another example. The point is that the historical linguistics lecture-story about octopi is that the form is analogical.

    ....As you say, syllabus does have a rather interesting history. Here's the OED's note:
    "< modern Latin syllabus, usually referred to an alleged Greek σύλλαβος. Syllabus appears to be founded on a corrupt reading syllabos in some early printed editions—the Medicean MS. has sillabos--of Cicero Epp. ad Atticum iv. iv, where the reading indicated as correct by comparison with the MS. readings in iv. v. and viii. is sittybas or Greek σιττύβας, accusative plural of sittyba, σιττύβα parchment label or title-slip on a book. (Compare Tyrrell and Purser Correspondence of Cicero nos. 107, 108, 112, Comm. and Adnot. Crit.) Syllabos was græcized by later editors as συλλάβους, from which a spurious σύλλαβος was deduced and treated as a derivative of συλλαμβάνειν to put together, collect (compare syllable n.).

    In the passage from S. Augustine's Confessions xiii. xv. ('ibi legunt [sc. angeli] sine syllabis temporum quid velit aeterna voluntas tua') commonly adduced as further evidence of Latin syllabus, the word is clearly syllaba syllable."

  8. Are you saying that the Latin plural of "octopus" is attested as "octopodes", or that it would be "octopodes" in theory, if it was ever to be pluralized?

  9. @goofy: "Octopus" is a modern Latin coinage (based on Greek). The Greek plural of "octopus" would be "octopodes". The argument here (that I'm picking up from the anonymous boingboing commenter) is that the Latin plural might well have been "octopi" (based on the fact that "polypus", also borrowed from Greek, formed its plural as "polypi"), if it had existed (which it didn't). [And, further, that the Romans weren't perhaps completely crazy for having a "polypi" plural, since even the Greeks sometimes formed the plural as "πολύποι" ("polúpoi").]

    This puts a new spin on the story I've used to illustrate the workings of analogy, and forms a basis for claiming that "octopi" is actually a historically-justifiable plural (though, of course, as actual language speakers we don't in practice care about historical justification for our usage).

  10. @be_slayed: I understand your main point, but I'm asking about your parenthetical comment that based on modern rules it should be a third declension noun, so the plural should be "octopodes". What I'm wondering is, is the plural of the Latin word attested? Do we have any evidence, besides the rules, that it is a third declension noun?

    I wrote about this on my blog as well, and this is something I didn't know.

  11. @goofy: Sorry, misunderstood what you were asking.

    The idea is that in Greek the word would be a third declension noun, and so if it's borrowed into Latin, it should be a third declension noun in Latin too (and thus form its plural in -es). Apparently this is the "modern" rule for Greek borrowings into Latin (I don't much much about this, though).

    But the -es ending is for masc/fem nouns; neuter nouns take -a. And I'm not sure what other third declension nouns in Latin end in -us (I can find examples of 3rd declension NEUTER nouns in -us).

    I don't know enough about the rules of (modern) scientific Latin I suppose.

  12. @be_slayed: the normal procedure in Classical and postclassical Latin is for a Greek third declension noun to be declined as a Latin 3rd declension noun, with stem changes mimicking those in Greek. So if there is a correct plural, it's more likely to be octopodes or octopuses than octopi.

    There are exceptions in very early borrowings attest from before the intensive contact between Greek speakers and Latin speakers, and there are exceptions in the medical literature (the medical and vetinary writers were of a much lower social class, and much less concerned with correctness, than other Latin prose writers). Polypus -i falls into this category of borrowings.

    There are a few non-neuter 3rd declension nouns in-us, but they are irrelevant for various reasons: Venus -eris and sus -uis for example.

    I don't want to start another hare, but I can't help thinking that a 4th declension usage, where the plural would be octopus just like the singular, conforms to the English practice of not having an overt plural form for seafood.

  13. The mention of 'backformation' set me to thinking of the bare verb form of the word, which rung a Teutonic bell in my head. Witness: