January 08, 2008
When in English, do like English
Nancy Friedman has an amusing post in her blog about the much-discussed, much-hesitated-over plural of the Toyota Prius. Priuses? Prii? As she quotes one guy in her post, perhaps even the apparently grammatically correct (in Latin) Priora?
These kinds of discussions can be fun, but they have a certain angels-on-pins quality to them. The plural of Prius is not Prii. No. The default, natural plural is Priuses. Why? Because adding -(e)s to nouns is how we form the plural in English.
This gives me cause to state my manifesto about words from other languages, which is this: once a word has accepted an invitation into English, it plays by English rules. It does not get to bring along its native inflections and conjugations and irregular declensions. Stated another way, English speakers who have a shiny new word to play with are not expected to also know the morphological rules of the language which has so kindly sent us a word. We do not have to know noun declensions in Latin, or how plurals are formed in Greek, or how verbs work in French in order to take up words from those languages. You don't need to know those languages to speak English.
Just in case you find yourself wavering on this question, consider the plural in English of the following words:
Now, if you believe that the plural of Prius is Prii, you're going to need to tell me the plural of the words in that list, which are originally and variously from Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin, Russian, and Yiddish. (For the curious, the German plurals are Bratwürste, Kindergärten, Weltschmerzen, and Blitzkriege. And as a point of interest Hamburger is an adjective in German; it's not even a noun. I won't mess with the other languages because—to reiterate my point—I don't know those languages, so why should I know the native verbal judo for those nouns?) If you're a stickler for Prii (or Priora), I sure hope you got all those plurals right.
For that matter, what's the plural of ox? Ha, got you, I bet ... you had to stop and think about it, didn't you? Historically, etymologically, it's oxen, using a plural form that's archaic and moribund (see also: children, and for that matter Weltschmerzen). If you don't happen to work with oxen all day, as you might not, you probably have so little cause to use the term that you might even revert to modern-day English practice and call it oxes. And as far as I'm concerned, that's perfectly fine, because why should you, after all, have to know the morphological rules of Anglo-Saxon, which has been dead for 700 years ...