Episode 53: The End of Endings

In the 10th century, several factors came together in northern England which resulted in the loss of Old English inflectional endings. This was a fundamental change to English grammar which simplified word forms and led to a fixed a word order. We conclude this episode by examining the plural word forms used in Modern English, and examining how those plural forms evolved in the context of inflectional loss.


28 thoughts on “Episode 53: The End of Endings

  1. Excellent and thought provoking episode.

    So have modern Scandinavian languages (e.g. Swedish, Danish & Norwegian) also dropped the vast majority of their originL inflections – or was this phenomenon unique only to Anglo Saxon England within European languages?

    • I don’t speak a Scandinavian language, so I can’t really give you a definitive answer. It is my understanding that there has been some erosion in Scandinavian inflectional endings, but not as much as English. Maybe a Scandinavian speaker can chime in with a more specific answer.

      • My answer to that — as a strictly amateur linguist who spent many years in Norway — is that Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are quite similar to English in terms of inflection and grammar generally. The main difference is that there are two genders, common and neuter. Verbs aren’t even inflected by number, so I go, you go, he go, etc. They’re much less inflected than German. Icelandic is another kettle of lutefisk. It hasn’t changed much down the years and retains the old inflections. Supposedly Icelanders today can read old sagas written down in the 1200s.

  2. I’ve been doing a bit of ‘binge listening’ so I’m not sure if these comments belong with this episode but, we were taught that “fishes” is valid when talking about several different types of fish. For example, if one has goldfish, guppies and tetras in a tank, one might say, “The fishes eat different types of food.”

    Love “sheepo”; there’s one to bring back into conversation. 😉

    And the comment that I’m really not sure if it belongs here or with an earlier episode is to do with “ill” as in “evil” or “bad” vs “sick”…there’s “it’s an ill wind that blows no-one any good” which can be understood as either “it’s an evil / bad wind that brings destruction on all in its path” or “it’s a poor / badly formed wind that is incapable of blowing good to anyone”. It’s from this second sense that we would get the meaning of being or feeling sick; after all, we might say “I’m feeling poorly” which (generally) would have nothing to do with our financial state.

    • Yes, German “Tiere” comes from the same Germanic root as English “deer.” In fact, the shift from the ‘D’ sound to the ‘T’ sound was one of the basic sound shifts associated with the Second Germanic Consonant Shift (aka, the High German Consonant Shift). That was the series of sound changes that produced Modern German from the original Proto-Germanic language. For example, the English word “dead” comes from the same root (and has the same meaning) as the German word “tot.” It is also why English has “day” where German has “Tag.” (See Episode 31 for more details on this particular sound shift.)

  3. Data is a word undergoing an interesting change as it is integrated into English from Latin. In Latin the singular version of the word is DATUM and DATA as a plural. If you look in formal writing (e.g. academic works or some newspapers and magazines) you’ll see data taking a plural verb even if in the minds of most speakers data is thought of as a singular noun. You almost never see anybody using “datum” (outside of academic contexts). In more vernacular speech and writing you see data taking either a singular or plural verb.

    A similar word with this controversy is “media” and “medium.” Medium is the singular version in Latin and this use of the word refers to the means by which information is conveyed (e.g. over the radio or by print). However, we often talk about “mass media” or “the media says…” and give it singular verbs.

    • Those are great examples. I was almost positive that I had used the data/datum example at some point in the podcast, but a quick search of my notes suggests otherwise. I’m sure those examples will pop up in a future episode.

    • The word “data” is, I believe, standing in now for both singular and plural forms. In one very specialized usage, “datum” still stands, though – that is in uses related to a precisely-known geophysical point. In surveying and mapping, the point of origin for measurements is still “datum”, never “data”.

  4. I also heard the same thing about fishes (plural for collection of different kinds) vs. fish (plural for the same kind of fish). Has anyone hear plural moose as meese, like goose and geese?

    • As a Canadian I can tell you: No meese. Moose. (But meese would be hilarious – am visualizing a cross between a mouse and a moose. Maybe a little tiny mouse with antlers…?) ?

  5. Fascinating and so clearly outlined. Thank you!
    Another interesting plural form in modern English relates to nouns coming from the Greek & whose singular form ends in -is. Rather than adding a plural marker we change the -is to -es: crisis, crises; analysis, analyses; etc.

  6. The brown horse jumped the white fence chasing the wild deer makes NO SENSE. Dude, horses don’t chase deer. Just saying.

  7. I’d always thought that the animals that kept a single word form were not usually seen alone or behaving differently, so consequently only needed to be referred to as a group and making multiple endings unnecessary.

    Fish and sheep are usually in large numbers for most encounters, and most hunted animals are either in groups or you’d expect to look for and see many similar separate targets on any particular hunt.
    Then if you did need to be specific you’d probably be using descriptive and more words anyway to make a particular case or distinction, so again not really needed.

    Has that been explored by linguists do you know?

    • I don’t know if there has been any research in that area. My research didn’t indicate that the singular word form was restricted to animals that are typically found in groups. In fact, my immediate thought was “deer” which are often observed as individuals. If I come across any additional information or research or this regard, I’ll be sure to post it.

  8. A fascnating episode. In older language (traditional ballads, for instance) the -n/-en plurals seem to be more frequent. One, of the top of my head, is shoon instead of shoes.

    • I touch on the issue of i-mutation in ‘Episode 34: Sounds Like Old English.’ It is not a thorough analysis, but I tried to introduce the concept of i-mutation in the context of that discussion.

  9. Just a comment that the plural of house is houzes in most dialects of English although not in my native Philadelphian.

    Guessing from German was the plural of child ever childer? So that children is a double plural.

    In my discipline there is a continuing argument over whether the plural of topos is toposes or topoi. I prefer the former for if you insist on the Greek plural, you ought to use the proper case endings too, else it is bad English and bad Greek.

    • Yes, I think you are correct about the word “children.” Here is an excerpt from the etymonline.com entry for “child”:

      “The difficulty with the plural began in Old English, where the nominative plural was at first ‘cild,’ identical with the singular, then c.975 a plural form ‘cildru’ (genitive ‘cildra’) arose, probably for clarity’s sake, only to be re-pluraled late 12c. as ‘children,’ which is thus a double plural. Middle English plural ‘cildre’ survives in Lancashire dialect childer and in ‘Childermas.'”

  10. I’m going to be stealing, for pedagogical purposes, your image of Danes and Anglo-Saxons slowly improving their mutual comprehension by ditching their respective, incompatible endings and tightening up the word order.

    An excellent episode, though the whole series is great too of course. I did love how you patiently teased out how unusual such a blending of two languages’ grammar is, and what factors went into it.

  11. You mentioned in the podcast that about half of Alfred’s translations are SVO. But how does that compre with what he was translating?
    If he saw “video te”, then I’m nit very impressed that ut was translated as “I see you”.
    But if it was “te video” and he chose “I see you” over “you, I see”, then I find the settling word order much more convincing.

  12. This episode, “The End of Endings” left me wondering about the beginning of endings. My first introduction to inflections was in prep school Latin. It definitely improved my understanding about how words worked. Are there theories about how, when, and why inflections entered the language in the first place?

    • Inflectional endings were part of the original Proto-Indo-European language, and they survive in most Indo-European languages to this day. I don’t think historical linguists say very much about the state of the language prior to that. I discussed Proto-Indo-European grammar in Episode 8.

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