Monday, November 22, 2010

The English Language and Digestive Illness

A query about spelling: The plural of scarf is scarves, but the spelling doesn’t change when you’re talking about the verb scarf, meaning “to eat quickly.” You would say, “When my dog is hungry he scarfs down all his food,” not “scarves down all this food.” Why would the letter change only in the noun? Is it because the verb scarf is slang? Doesn’t the switch from “F” to “V” happen in order to make the word easier to pronounce? The similar sounding dwarf can pluralize to dwarves (though I think some people might use dwarfs), but it stays as dwarfs as a verb, as in “The new building dwarfs the ones around it.” But then again, morph stays the same — or would, perhaps if you were speaking about Power Rangers and counting transformations: “one morph, two morphs.” Does it stay the same because its “F” sound is represented with something other than the letter “F”? Or am I approaching this completely wrongheaded?

By the way, I arrived at this mystery by trying to figure out what the correct plural for barf would be, as in “one barf, two barfs.” Barves? I mean, I know it’s not, but I kind of wish it were barves.


  1. The alternation of the final fricative in noun plurals (knife-knives, hoof-hooves, house-houses etc) goes back to Old English. In Old English fricatives were phonemically voiceless, but were voiced between vowels - so /f/ was pronounced [v] between vowels. In noun plurals, the final fricative was between vowels - so the plural of Old English "cnif" (knife) was "cnifas" (or something) where the "f" was pronounced as [v].

    By Middle English the voiced and voiceless variants had split into separate phonemes, so this rule no longer applied, but the alternation found in noun plurals remained. It was even been extended to nouns that didn't originally have it, for instance dwarf-dwarves and scarf-scarves (which was probably borrowed from French).

    The "-s" that forms the third person singular verb suffix is more recent - it dates from the Middle English period, so the Old English voicing rule no longer applied.

    Hope that makes some sort of sense.

  2. So to perhaps say it again a bit simpler: the reason it happens to nouns and not verbs is because adding S to verbs happened later than adding S to nouns. By the time S started to be added to verbs, the rule for changing /f/ to /v/ had ceased to be productive - it wasn't automatic any more. So it wasn't used with verbs.

    By the way, it's not just /f/ - compare the change from /s/ to /z/ in house-houses, and the change from /θ/ to /ð/ in mouth-mouths.

    A similar thing is going on in the alternations between nouns and verbs derived from them, for instance breath-breathe, tooth-teethe, life-live, thief-thieve, house (noun)-house (verb).

  3. Sorry for late response, but I get what you're saying. Thanks so much for the clarification. Completely understood now.

  4. I think "dwarfs" might still be the preferred plural of "dwarf," although the popularity of Tolkien has made "dwarves" very common.