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Irregular plural nouns: -en plurals

The plural of "whale" is "whales", but what's the plural of "child"? David, Khan Academy's resident grammarian, explains.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello grammarians. Today we're going to be discussing more irregular plurals. So, this is the irregular plural part II, the two-ening. Because we really want to focus on this en particle. I'll explain in a minute. So, previously we discussed the idea that there's one regular plural. And then, there are a couple of different kinds of irregular plurals. So, we have the word dog. Then it becomes dogs. We have the word leaf. Then it becomes leaves. I'd like to introduce something else too, the word child is also an irregular plural because its plural form is not childs, but in fact, you ready, say it with me, children. Wow. That's weird. What is that about? Like I said, English is not a predictable language. Few languages are. When we think of English as one solid block of wood, what we're actually seeing is this lashed together raft made of spit, hope, and history. So, it's your job as a writer and a speaker of English to make of this crooked timber something straight, to borrow a phrase and then mangle it. So, the question is what is the deal? Right. And the answer is that it has to do with English language history and heritage. English comes to us from Old English, which, if you look at it now, it kinda looks like German because English is a Germanic language. That's the term linguists use. So, in Old English, there were a bunch of different ways to make something plural. Some nouns would become plural by adding an e n. Some you could add an s. Some you would add an r. And part of this depended on what part of England you lived in at the time. There were a bunch of different regional variations. Today, this e n ending only applies to basically three or four words. These are all you need to remember for this one weird e n thing. So, the e n ending plural only applies to child, ox, brother, or sister. And even those, these are really rare. I bet you don't even know what I'm talking about. The plural of brother originally was brethren. The plural of sister is sistren, or sistren. But these are so rare, and brothers and sisters is so common that we don't even need to consider them. So, really, the only weird e n plurals that are gonna be in common usage are children, and oxen. And unless your family raises musk oxen or you're an ox driver, you're probably not gonna be using the word ox very often, and if oxen are a big part of your life, you probably knew how to pluralize them already just from hearing people talk about them your entire childhood. So, I'm going to cross that off too. The only thing you need to worry about is the e n in children. Child becomes children. Now, you're probably wondering David if there's the word ox, and ox becomes oxen. What about box? Why is the plural of box boxes and not boxen? To borrow a gag from Brian Regan. The simple truth is that it has to do with this word's origin. Ox is a native Old English word. Box comes to us originally from Greek, and then Latin. And then French. That's how it came to English. I'm sorry if that's not a very satisfying answer, but that's how English works. English is this language that is composed of a bunch of different puzzle pieces all mashed together by time, history, and repeated invasions, which are totally metal. But I'm getting away from myself. The important thing to remember is that for this irregular plural, this e n ending, really, unless you work with oxen, or unless you are leading some sort of old-timey folk revival where you have to refer to brethren and sistren, child to children is really the only change you need concern yourself with. All this can be summed up just like that. You can learn anything. David out. Now, if you're still with me, I would like to relate a humorous, historical anecdote that comes to us from the 15th century English printer William Caxton. Now, this story comes to us from about the year 1490. And I just want to use this story to illustrate just how different, how dependent on what part of the country you were living in was on the language that you spoke. Because before mass transit, and mass communication media, which William Caxton was a part of because he was one of the first English language printers. Before any of this technology allowed us all to communicate with each other, we basically just had letters, and most people were illiterate. And talking to each other. And since it wasn't really easy to get from place to place to place before the advent of cars most people didn't really go very far. So, here is the story, which I will translate for you from Middle English. It goes like this. So, these merchants were traveling from the Thames river, which flows through London, and they're trying to get to Zeeland, here, which is in the modern day Netherlands. This is, incidentally, this is England. This is the southern southeast coast of England. They're trying to get to Zeeland, and this is a distance of about 160 miles. Give or take. But they can't make it there because of bad winds. They stop here at Foreland to refresh their stores. They stop for groceries basically. And then, they realize that their London English and the English of the place where they are, which is maybe 60 miles out of London, maybe, is mutually incomprehensible. A man goes into a house. Asks the woman of the house for eggs. She doesn't understand the word eggs because the word she uses for eggs is eyren. The word egg is Norse. And he says I would like some egges. And she says I don't have any egges. I don't speak French. And he gets angry because he's like I don't speak French either. I'm English. He says do you have any eggs. She says I don't know what that is. And finally, someone says I think he means eyren. Do you have any eyren? And she said oh eyren. Of course, here. Buy some. And it just goes to show you that before the advent of mass communication, we could have had variations from, as Caxton put it, shire to shire to shire. Each little town had its own variant of language, and it wasn't until everything was united by this technology that Caxton worked with, the printing press, that people started to become literate and converge toward what we would consider a more unified standard of English. Alright. That was just a little bonus, silly video. You can learn anything. David out.