John Larrysson Column: Strange Plurals: Old English Words

Last week I covered the irregular plurals of foreign words used in English. Strangely enough the set of irregular foreign words also includes words from older versions of English. I'll cover those this week. The original Old English is not understandable by modern English speakers. The more recent Middle English is about as similar to Modern English as it is to German. So some strange plurals come from Old English and Middle English. They are equivalent to foreign languages when it comes to non-standard spelling and plurals in Modern International English.

[audio 1]


/f/ -> /v/


In Old English people would refer to one wulf or one wif (one wolf or one wife) but more than one wulfas or wifas. The /f/ and /v/ sounds are physically similar and people slowly started using the /v/ for the plural.

Many consonant sounds come in pairs. The /f/ and /v/ sounds are made with the lips and teeth (they are dento-labial fricatives) in the same position. The difference is that /f/ is an unvoiced sound. Unvoiced sounds are made with no vibration of the vocal cords. /v/ is a voiced sound. Put your finger tips on the front of your throat to feel the difference. Often unvoiced sounds, such as /f/ are inadvertently voiced /v/ between two vowel sounds. So over time the change was natural.


life - lives

thief - thieves

wife - wives

half - halves

self - selves

wolf - wolves

knife - knives

leaf - leaves

shelf - shelves

Old English words ending in a consonant or a single vowel plus -f or -fe, change the -f or -fe to -ves to make the plural. The word beeves as the plural of beef does exist, but this word is quite rare.

[audio 2]

Some English irregular plurals are formed by changing the vowel. These words and their plurals are also from Old English. Old English grammar (including inflections) was far more complicated than in Modern English. For example, you know that the plural of mouse is mice. In Old English the word was mos and the plural was mys (in the Old English nominative case). The letters S and C make the same sound, so the significant change is the vowel. There are a couple oddities about this word. Walt Disney's character uses the regular plural, Mickey Mouses. The plural used for the computer peripheral has not been settled. However so far computer mouses is more common than computer mice.


Modern English: goose/geese

Old English: gos/ges

Modern English: tooth/teeth

Old English: toth/teth

As in the case of mice vs. Mickey Mouses, standard modern plurals are often used for unusual cases of irregular plurals. The plural of foot is feet. The Old English word was fot and the plural was fet. Consider the UK family name Proudfoot (from the North Ridings) two people from the family are Proudfoots and never Proudfeet. Popular use decides which plural is used.

[audio 3]

Sometimes different plurals are used in different contexts and take on different meanings. The usual plural of brother is brothers. The older and irregular plural bretheren is now used for figurative brothers in a church.

Be thankful for how simplified Modern English is. The cases and inflections of Old English have for the most part been removed from the language. These irregular plurals were regular in the original language, but are now relics from the past. Since they are fairly common words, they are resistant to being standardised. Is "tooths" such a bad spelling? Every English speaker will understand it, even if it is technically wrong. What about "halfs"? Today the English language is taking many words from other languages and making them standard English words. These strange Old English plurals will probably go unchanged for some time. They are common words that every English speaker knows.

[audio 4]

Related Articles:

Strange Plurals : Animals

Strange Plurals: Foreign Words

Strange Plurals: Things That Are Naturally Plural & A Summary

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.