A brief history of plural word…s – John McWhorter


There are a lot of ways this marvelous language of ours, English, doesn’t make sense. For example, most of the time when we talk about more
than one of something, we put an S on the end. One cat, two cats. But then, there’s that handful of words where things work differently. Alone you have a man; if he has company, then you’ve got men, or probably better for him, women too. Although if there were only one of them, it would be a woman. Or if there’s more than one goose, they’re geese, but why not lots of mooses, meese? Or if you have two feet, then why don’t you read two beek instead of books. The fact is that if you
were speaking English before about a thousand years ago, beek is exactly what you would have said for more than one book. If Modern English is strange, Old English needed therapy. Believe it or not, English used to be an even harder language to learn than it is today. Twenty-five hundred years ago, English and German were the same language. They drifted apart slowly, little by little becoming
more and more different. That meant that in early English, just like in German, inanimate objects had gender. A fork, gafol, was a woman; a spoon, laefel, was a man; and the table they were on, bord, was neither, also called neuter. Go figure! Being able to use words meant not just knowing their meaning but what gender they were, too. And while today there
are only about a dozen plurals that don’t make sense, like men and geese, in Old English, it was perfectly normal for countless plurals to be like that. You think it’s odd that more
than one goose is geese? Well, imagine if more than one goat was a bunch of gat, or if more than one oak tree was a field of ack. To be able to talk about any of these, you just had to know the exact
word for their plural rather than just adding
the handy S on the end. And it wasn’t always
an S at the end either. In merry Old English, they could add other sounds to the end. Just like more than one child is children, more than one lamb was lambru, you fried up your eggru, and people talked not about breads, but breadru. Sometimes it was like sheep is today – where, to make a plural,
you don’t do anything. One sheep, two sheep. In Old English, one house, two house. And just like today, we have
oxen instead of oxes. Old English people had
toungen instead of tongues, namen instead of names, and if things stayed the way they were, today we would have eyen instead of eyes. So, why didn’t things
stay the way they were? In a word, Vikings. In the 8th century, Scandinavian marauders started taking over much of England. They didn’t speak English, they spoke Norse. Plus, they were grown-ups, and grown-ups aren’t as good at learning languages as children. After the age of roughly 15, it’s almost impossible
to learn a new language without an accent and without slipping up here and there as we all know from what language
classes are like. The Vikings were no different, so they had a way of smoothing away the harder parts of how English worked. Part of that was those crazy plurals. Imagine running up against a language with eggru and gat on the one hand, and then with other words, all you have to do is add ‘s’ and get days and stones. Wouldn’t it make things easier to just use the ‘s’ for everything? That’s how the Vikings felt too. And there were so many of them, and they married so
many of the English women, that pretty soon, if you
grew up in England, you heard streamlined English
as much as the real kind. After a while nobody remembered
the real kind any more. Nobody remembered that once you said doora instead of doors and handa instead of hands. Plurals made a lot more sense now, except for a few hold-outs like children and teeth that get used so much that it was hard to break the habit. The lesson is that English makes a lot
more sense than you think. Thank the ancestors of people in Copenhagen and Oslo for the fact that today we don’t ask
for a handful of pea-night instead of peanuts. Although, wouldn’t it be fun, if for just a week or two, we could?

Comments 100

  • English language like software with bad user interface but most persons not want fix it.

  • Doora
    Dora
    Dora the Explorer

  • Actully your goose example is hungarian (which makes sense since they are in simillar reigions but they are terribly diffrent even down to structure so they would've added things too, hence goose : geese, foot : feet)

  • English is a very easy language to learn. Weird plurals are usually rooted in their Germanic origins.

  • I will change it then and make some new

  • loved it when the vikings first appeared in the animation

  • Yeah, I know this is a late comment. The concept that pronunciation and accent cannot be changed or is "almost impossible" to change 2:55 onwards is being challenged by some TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) experts. See the book "Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech" by Alene Moyer, 2013, for more information, and in particular her second chapter as an example. I am not saying the explanation of the development of plurals is wrong, it is just that some modern theories question one of the underlying principles presented here.

  • 1:12 We still have that in spanish [Spain]. Nouns can be female, or male.

    La cuchara [The spoon]
    El tenedor [The fork]

    So, depending on the pronountuation of the word, and according to its last silabel, it would be female, or male.

  • I think I might be the only one who cares, but, whoever drew that picture at 3:58 got the batter's hands wrong. His right hand is supposed to be on top of his left

  • The reason English so complex is because it borrowed from so many other languages

  • But… you didn’t explain why the old English had the strange plurals. You just shifted the blame back in time and avoided a full explanation.

  • Creo que no pinto aquí…

  • I recognize that voice! Big fan of John McWhorter.

  • "Moose" technically has no plural unless you use context.

  • English is not hard at all compared to most other languages.

  • Moose is mooses and not meese because moose is a native American word, to which the English rules don't apply.

  • Vikings are cool

  • Loved this – I'm going to show it to my students, we're covering the Anglo-saxons and the Vikings

  • english was "even harder" to learn, hahahahahahhahahhahahahhahahaha

  • Lets go to the ACK ACK ACK forest

  • Are they adding Gru at the end of the words?

  • Learning languages past 15 you will always have an accent? Doubt that.

  • So i cant learn another language?!😱

  • Old english sounds a lot like dutch

  • The plural of moose isn't mooses. It's moose.

  • VIKING, don't do half job.
    You should push all plural to s

  • The way you describe how plurals used to be in Old English is basically the way they are today in modern German. The words you showed for spoon and fork sound an awful lot like the modern German words for those objects too.

  • I would like a phoneru lol

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKvjIsyYng8

  • Portuguese os Stilo worse

  • if you roll the R's these words do sound nice

  • The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg is an excellent work on this topic.

  • 1) English doesn't have plural, it has non-singular: no dogs, 1 dog, 2 dogs, 3 dogs, 4 dogs, etc
    2) the suffix '-s' is not a number marker at all, but a despecifier:
    – Those dogs eat. -non-singular dog, singular being very specific
    – Dogs have 4 legs. -non-specific dog
    – This dog runs fast. – non-specific time

  • I'm offended because you didn't mention Sweden, only Denmark and Norway 😡

  • I'm MC Don't Know How to Pluralize Word

  • I love my breedru with my egroo

  • Time to sponsor vikings to fix the rest of the words.

  • It would be nice to have English simplified even more. Get rid of the letters C and Q. And change G to only have the sound matching "Good" (not J)

  • Dr. McWhorter is, in my opinion, the best linguistics teacher around. He is really interesting to listen to, and he can teach you a lot. Not only is there linguistic knowledge and expertise in what he says, but there is also wit and knowledge of what is going on in the world in general. I suggest that everyone purchase and read his many books, and also buy the 4 courses he offers as part of the Great Courses series of The Learning Company. You won’t be disappointed. This man has a lot to teach, and he does so with grace, charm and unbridled efficacy.

  • Being a slovak speaker these plurals kind of make more sense than the s to me…

  • English is one of the easiest languages to learn.

  • Doora is here

  • Poor Child…. He was crying too….

  • You forgot how the Normans made our language even harder. Go research “the great vowel shift.”

  • I guess that explains why English is such an easy language today. I wonder if the vikings had any influence on how you (don´t) conjugate verbs in English. I mean seriously your verbs are a joke.

  • The spoon is the boy and the fork is the girl??? I have been lied to all my life

  • I am not so sure. Vikings spoke Old Norse, and old Norse had a more complicated declession system, and none of them used s as plural. Ergo, I doubt they used s because of the old English declession system was hard (theirs was worse) and second s was genitive (possessive), not plural. Being R the plural.

  • I took this from tumblr okey donkey yo
    1: you're Portuguese right?
    2: no I'm portugoose there is only one of me
    3: starts crying

  • This was so fun to watch. 😀

  • Wow. To trivialise a topic that much…

  • This video is kinda misleading. English and German were not the same language, but they did descend from a common ancestor. And you don't really need to know the exact word for the plural when you understand how umlaut works…

  • Old English sounded like those Japanese lines you typically misheard during the episode of an anime

  • 0:13 you lier

  • I'm mad at who ever drew this… call me a perv but why did he draw the cartoon viking with such a large bulge –___

  • Thanks for the explanation

  • That’s a very strange explanation. In Swedish, the plural is never with S. Instead in French it is. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, the ruling elite of England spoke French for 3 centuries. So the english language became heavily influenced by the french one. Thus the S.

  • English speakers dont realize how simple their language is

  • Now learn German plurals
    The plural for Atlas is Atlanten

  • Would it be easier if we take out the "s"

  • Hey, language like that isn't that hard! French has gendered nouns, silent plural s . . . eses at the end of words, and sometimes just an x at the end instead. And then there's like 10 different conjugations. English is easy compared to other languages.

  • This video makes me want to break someone’s teeth next time they mock my suggestion towards enhancing the productivity of human communication.

  • There's a very appropriate quote "English tracks down other languages down dark alleys mugs them and rifles through their pockets for loose vocabulary"

  • I hate plural wordeses

  • Damn the Vikingenen thingen woulden been differenten…

  • Thanks, I wanted to know this.

  • My life makes sense now.

  • Thank Vikingssss for the S, much easier.

  • Thank you for the -s vikings

  • In Chinese, all nouns are singular. To make them plural, you add a collective noun in front of it. There's at least one for each noun (I think), and there might be several for one noun, depending on situation. Have fun.

  • A drastic simplification, but I suppose it does get the point across

  • Fun fact, the word Bord for table in Old English is the same as the modern Irish word for table, Bord. Also, plurals in modern Irish are far more complex than modern English, and I'd even argue that Plurals in modern Irish they are far harder than those of Old English were.

  • English and German were the same language? I suppose if you mean they both descend from Proto-Germanic, but that wording implies that German existed back then, and is as silly as saying that English and Russian were the same language (as they both descend from Proto-Indo-European).

    Old English plurals, like those in Modern German, don't make a lot of sense in isolation, but they make more sense if you study Gothic, which keeps the Proto-Germanic noun declensions. The loss of noun declensions in most Germanic languages makes plurals seem arbitrary, but historically, they aren't.

  • Entendi porra nenhuma

  • What came first, the chickean or the eggru?

  • Australians still speak old English🤠🤠

  • English a hard language to learn?! Don't make me laugh. Apart from the weird spelling it's one of the easiest out there. Exactly for the fact that it's basically a pidgin/creole of old English, old norse and Norman french with greatly simplified grammar.
    Now if we come to idioms, that's a different matter. But the basic language is simple.

  • Doora? The Explorer?

  • Something that this video didn't mention is that the final -s for plural actually did not exist in old English, but rather they used -en to denote regular "non-ablaut" (an ablaut is when you switch vowels in a word to change its grammatical features) plural. Proof of this are the rest of the Germanic languages, that use no -s suffix, at least for the plural.

    So, long story short, this -s suffix derives from French, it is a loan from that language. Since French had a huge impact on England throughout their history, one of the things the English language borrowed was this way to denote the plural.

  • English vocabulary is horrendously complicated.There is hardly any logical way of deriving one word from another. Also, its grammar isn't that easy: there are not many endings, but you have many fixed combinations of verbs or nouns with prepositions. For the tenses there are a lot of rules, too. Some languages have a lot of endings, but those can be pretty regular, and help you understand the function of the words in a sentence. On the other hand, there are also languages without plural forms, tenses or word categories. Most languages have an easier pronunciation than English. English spelling goes wrong both ways: you don't write what you hear, and you don't know how to pronounce what you see. It's become a widespread language because of power.

  • I don’t think you mean Vikings, I think you mean Vikingren

  • They should have stuck N onto the end of words instead of S. -S as a plural suffix doesn't come from English.

  • If English and German were the same language,then that means Americans and British have ancestors that spoke the same language as Nazis.

  • or pea-nus

  • lambru, eggru, breadru, hotto doggu, lappu toppu

  • So, someone figured out how simplistic English language is? Well! Finally! 🙂

  • Peanightttttt!

  • thanks. i think eggru is superior

  • Incidentally, if you’ve ever heard of weak vs strong plurals, this is the difference being talked about; simply adding an s, like tree-trees, is weak pluralization, while altering the vowels, like man-men or the old book-beek is strong. Nowadays, weak conjugations are normal, so the strong ones are irregular. Similar distinctions exist in verb past conjugations, like look-looked vs see-saw; again, the weak form became normal.

  • This isn't much when you already have to do that for French.

  • "history of plural words….. In English …… And without a beginning."

  • Thank you

  • "Beek"😂😂😂😂

  • I love John McWhorter. His podcast Lexicon Valley is phenomenal!

  • haha losers, just try to learn Russian before claiming that English is weird

  • sorry but it doesn't make sense to blame the Vikings! Norse didn't have an S-plural, nor does the modern Scandinavian languages, so why would Vikings introduce something so foreign to themselves? lol

  • Wow. Great explanation!

  • This video was full of clichés, love it.

  • I'm sorry, but… This video is superficial, basically saying that English split from German and developed sigmatic plurals thanks to Viking's invasion, especially when saying "there were so many Vikings throughout that nobody remembered the old plurals (what do you mean with word England referring back then, exactly where? How many?). Even the illustration is biased (Vikings for example did not wear helmets with horns). English developing contemporary plurals with an S is just one little bit of the huge amount of processes that occurred in Old English and throughout time transformed it into what it is nowadays: for example, it occurred in Lombard as well, in which we had metaphonetic plurals which disappeared throughout time. It is not very informative talking about it without putting it in the whole context. The risk is that of an uniformed person (who approaches this topic for the first time) oversimplifying complex information, just because the video has to be short, appealing, funny.

  • One breaderu please

  • It was def the japanese that brought that eggru lambru breadru thing lol

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