Mark Liberman at Language Log has a post on the plural of the word dwarf, in the course of which he quotes a truly impressive range of spellings from the OED and a substantial chunk of Tolkien. What I want to address here, however, is his Update, wherein he quotes his fellow Logger Bill Poser as follows:

For me the plural of “dwarf” is [dworvz], no two ways about it. I consider [dworfs] outright error, even in other people’s speech. (Of course I acknowledge that there may be other dialects. What I mean is that I will not accept [dworfs] as a possible variant within what I consider my own dialect of English. This contrasts with, e.g., [rufs]. I myself have both [rufs] and [rUvz] and somebody ceteris paribus consider someone who has either one to be a speaker of my own dialect.)

When I read your most recent post, at first I didn’t get it. The reason is that I read “dwarfs” as [dworvz]. For me, the “fs” spelling doesn’t necessarily indicate that the word is to be pronounced [fs]. In some cases, I consider both spellings acceptable, e.g. “dwarfs” or “dwarves.” In others, I use only one spelling but still have both pronounciations. I write only “roofs,” *”rooves”, but still say both [rufs] and [rUvz].

(I note that I have changed his angle brackets for written forms to quotes, since the blog takes angle brackets as signals of HTML, and that by I write only “roofs,” *”rooves”, he means I write only “roofs,” and never “rooves”; furthermore, I suspect the word somebody in the first paragraph should be deleted.) Now, this seems bizarre to me. I can’t imagine looking at “dwarfs” (say, in the phrase red dwarfs) and pronouncing it [dworvz], as if it were spelled “dwarves.” And I further can’t imagine using the form dwarves in the astronomical sense; it’s a basic feature of English that extended/metaphorical senses of words commonly take regular forms when the literal senses have irregular ones: cf “He flied out” (in baseball) vs “He flew to New York.” To me, “red dwarves” would imply ruddy small people. I’d be interested in what readers think about all this.


  1. It’s true that extended/metaphorical senses of words
    often regularize, but they don’t have to. One example is the use of the irregular plural “mice”
    even in reference to computer “mice”. For me only
    “mice” is possible here; “mouses” sounds awful.
    And I can’t recall hearing anyone else say “mouses”.
    For me the stars are indeed “red dwarves”.

    With regard to spelling, a hypothesis would be that I read “dwarfs” as [dworvz] because I speak
    a dialect that is fairly conservative in its retention of such forms and am therefore accustomed to seeing the innovative forms in print
    but reading them in accordance with my own dialect.

  2. Cf. “Snow White and Some Several Dwarts” (John Lennon, “In His Own Write”). This must be a version of the presumably-very-archaic “dweorth” form, which survived in Liverpool along with various other forms of hooliganism.
    “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers”: well, that’s singular, but I thought I’d throw it in. We’ll probably never know what the Firesign Theater thought about this question.

  3. <Feh!>

  4. An aside:
    To get < (less than), type &lt; in your entry or comments.
    To get > (greater than) type &gt;

  5. des, Nao: Thanks, guys, I am aware that it’s possible to produce angle brackets, but the fact is I’m never going to remember the codes and it’s too much trouble to look them up, so I work around the problem.
    zizka: Shoes for industry, comrade!

  6. Those are two of the three entity names (along with &, which I refuse to be deterred from using by the inconvenience) that I can remember.
    Real angle brackets (which are different from the gt/lt pair) are somewhere in Unicode, but I don’t know where.

  7. Des: U+2329 and U+232A should do it. 〈making your text un-asciiable for small gain is perhaps not that great an idea, though.〉

  8. My oldest son, mainly for the purpose of showing off, once asked a high school English teacher on the first day of school, “What is the plural of ‘oaf’?” She didn’t know but, the next day, came back with the answer: “oafs”. Both “oafs” and “oaves” sound strange to me though. yourDictionary.com does not show a plural at all.

  9. I read a book by Mordecai Richler (the Saul Bellow of Montreal, except that Saul Bellow was born in Montreal) once, in which the (sleazy, unreliable) narrator explains that he slept with the A students because they were A students — he didn’t give out A’s because of sexual favors.
    Maybe he’s the Philip Roth of Montreal. He does the grumpy, funny Jewish guy very well.

  10. Wrong thread.

  11. That’s OK — a great line like “the Saul Bellow of Montreal, except that Saul Bellow was born in Montreal” is welcome anywhere!

  12. Years ago (as in the mid-80s to early 90s) I used to use the regular plural mouses when referring to those little point-and-click beasties but I’ll agree with Bill that these days I use the more common used form mice (“computer mice” vs “computer mouses” is currently running at around 4:1 according to Google). I hadn’t really even noticed the switch but I remember it because I used to use it as an example of how computer terms often regularized words in the process of recycling them.
    I guess this may have something to do with the word becoming mainstream and has therefore picked up its more traditional patterns of usage. By this logic Red Dwarfs are still out of the mainstream I guess.

  13. Data point: My daughters have a video of Snow White with an intro by somebody-or-other Disney — Walt’s nephew, I belief. He consistently pronounces it [dwarfs] so I’d guess that’s the official Disney line. It’s jarring to my ear, too.

  14. I agree with your basic point that where we have variant spellings and variant pronunciations we tend to correlate them. I say [ru:vz] and therefore grit my teeth and write ‘rooves’, though I know it looks ridiculous, because the regularity rule outranks the ridicule rule (for me).
    Computer mouses: I’ve heard this, but it’s unlike the case of, say, still lifes, where you can argue that the presence of brackets in ‘[still life]+PL’ prevents the ‘life+PL’ override rule operating. For that to work with mouses there’d have to be a formative ‘METAPHORIC’ or some such, interposed in the sequence ‘mouse+METAPHORIC+PL’, which doesn’t look quite right to me.

  15. Dave pacey says

    I just picked up my tattered old copy of the Hobbit (an ispiration born of recently enjoying the film version of ROTK) and the preface, by Tolkien, clearly differentiates between the actual English word Dwarfs and his use of the word Dwarves. I’m just sayin’.

  16. Alan Macfield says

    I remember completing an IQ Test (Firefighters Recruit Examination) in 1955 and one of the questions was: What is the plural of Leaf and Roof? I answered Leaves and Rooves!
    I was immediately called an ignoramus. Since that time I have read many dictionaries and encyclopaedia and have never seen the word rooves used. An English Professor at Sydney University assured me “rooves” was only for the uneducated.

  17. Interesting. Fowler (1926) says “no v forms,” but Cassell (1998) says “pl. roofs, rooves (roovz)).” I don’t know whether the voiced form has spread or whether it was always there but unrecognized by “authorities” who prefered to consult their navel rather than actual usage. At any rate, I think you should send a copy of the Cassell page to the people who called you an ignoramus; they were wrong, wrong, wrong!

  18. Bill Poser writes above:
    With regard to spelling, a hypothesis would be that I read “dwarfs” as [dworvz] because I speak a dialect that is fairly conservative in its retention of such forms and am therefore accustomed to seeing the innovative forms in print
    but reading them in accordance with my own dialect.

    But that contravenes the evidence, which is that both the spelling “dwarves” and the pronunciation [dwo(r)vz] sprung full-blown out of JRRT’s head. It’s not a conservative form at all. The conservative descendant of OE dweorgas would be “dwarrows”, as JRRT himself says, which is in fact recorded in ME as dw(h)erw(h)es.
    In fact, “dwarves” is neither more nor less than a recent analogical formation (probably based on elves) that has partly displaced the earlier analogical formation “dwarfs” [dwo(r)fs].

  19. Sarah Gracey says

    what are all of the dwarfves names?thanks bye

  20. Just to set the record straight, there are a few uses of dwarves before Tolkien, also attributable to analogy. But it is his usage that has pushed dwarves into Standard English, if only in certain meanings.

  21. January First-of-May says

    And the linked Language Log article now has a note linking to a further discussion from 2011 (apparently now the form “dwarves” is even attested for the verb).

    I myself probably agree with what appears to be the modern majority opinion – which is to say, that “dwarves” is appropriate for the fantasy and mythological creatures, while everything else (short people, stars, and definitely anything to do with the verb) is “dwarfs”.
    (Sadly, Carroll’s Phantasmagoria, which mentions a good deal of other assorted fantasy creatures, has nothing on the dwarves, in either the plural or the singular.)

  22. Here’s a fuller explanation from the History of Middle-earth XII:

    But here something of their old character and power (if already diminished) is still glimpsed; these are the Nauglir [later Naugrim] of old, in whose hearts still smouldered the ancient fires and the embers of their grudge against the Elves; and to mark this dwarves is used, in defiance of correctness and the dictionaries – although actually it is derived from no more learned source than childhood habit. I always had a love of the plurals that did not go according to the simplest rule: loaves, and elves, and wolves, and leaves; and wreaths and houses (which I should have liked better spelt wreathes and houzes); and I persist in hooves and rooves according to ancient authority. I said therefore dwarves however I might see it spelt [just like Bill Poser] feeling that the good folk were a little dignified so; for I never believed the sillier things about them that were presented to my notice. I wish I had known of dwarrows in those days. I should have liked it better still. I have enshrined it now at any rate in my translation of the name of Moria in the Common Speech, which meant The Dwarf-delving, and that I have rendered by The Dwarrow-delf.

  23. Great find!

  24. marie-lucie says

    mice, *mouses

    There is at least one older use of mouse which does not refer to an animal: church mouse, a poor person who spends an inordinate amount of time in church, sometimes providing minor help (like dusting the statues, changing the water for flowers, etc). Such people are church mice, not mouses.

    still lifes

    Still lifes are paintings of inanimate objects, typically foods, kitchen and table utensils, and such, not singly but artistically arranged together, sometimes including a dead animal about to be prepared for cooking.

    Still lives could be the title of a book about the lives of solitary people in a nondescript, faraway hamlet or in a Carmelite monastery (where the inmates do not speak).

  25. Sometime in the early 1990s, both the Tall Dwarfs and the Dwarves played in one club near where I lived, within months of each other. The bands were far opposites in sound and personality. I enjoyed them both. The Tall Dwarfs have had a long-lasting influence.

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