Word Matters Podcast

How do you even pronounce 'antennae' anyway?

Word Matters, episode 4

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After a job well done, you might receive kudos. But today we ask: can you ever receive just one? Or is it just the sound of one hand clapping? Then, we explore a topic that loves to make even the most seasoned English speakers second-guess themselves: Latin plurals.

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips) NEIL SERVEN, HOST: My question is: can you earn a single kudo?

AMMON SHEA, HOST: Is this another case of they’re just trying to hold onto the tail end of a dead language once it comes into English?

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters: what English speaker do to and do with the words that they borrow from Greek and Latin. I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary’s vantagepoint.

(music interlude)

EMILY: English is a mongrel that’s built its word horde by borrowing from hundreds of other languages. Some of the words it’s adopted have easily and almost seamlessly settled into the lexicon. But others maintain characteristics of their origin languages, until they don’t. Here’s editor Neil Serven with a look at kudo, a Greek borrowing that English eventually made fully its own.

NEIL: I wanted to talk today about kudos. Now, I don’t mean I’m asking for kudos.

AMMON: It’s okay if you do.

NEIL: I would take them if you give them. But I wanted to talk about this word kudos that we use for praise or fame that we get for an achievement. Kudos for a job well done. And I guess my question is: can you earn a single kudo? Why not? If you can earn many kudos, why can’t you earn a single kudo? This question arises because kudos itself is not originally a plural noun. It is a Greek abstract noun. It follows like pathos, ethos, _logos, which were all Greek nouns that describe these abstract concepts. And kudos fell into this same category. It was used to describe praise. Just a positive response to something that someone else has done. So what has happened in English, English speakers see that S on the end of kudos and they’ve interpreted this as a plural noun. And we have other plural nouns that we’ve used for things that we receive for a job well done. We talk about receiving accolades, we talk about receiving awards, we talk about receiving honors, and so I think people interpret kudos in that same category. You can receive a single accolade, you can receive an award, so why can’t you receive a single kudo?

AMMON: It’s interesting that you bring up pathos, which is similar, because I feel like we definitely wonder “can you do a single kudo,” but pathos typically means, you know, it’s an experience evoking pity or compassion. We don’t think “well, does a patho evoke just a little bit of sympathy?”

NEIL: There is no real instance of being able to reduce that to a single unit.

AMMON: There’s no unit of pathos, right.

NEIL: There’s no single unit of pathos you can give.

AMMON: But we do think that there can be a singular kudo.

NEIL: Right.

EMILY: Well and it’s because it looks like a plural word. In English, words that end in S are plural, typically, especially if they’re nouns. So this is a noun, it’s fully understandable that someone would think that you could see kudos and then well you’ve got one kudo.

NEIL: And this does appear in edited prose quite often. There’s an article in Newsday, 2018, by Jeff Williams talking about Louis Armstrong Stadium. “It even got a kudo from Simona Halep, the No. 1 seed who played the first match there on Monday.” It’s perfectly fluid, it’s a perfect natural phrasing, a back-formation that just makes sense as a single act of acknowledgment or praise. And one of the things that probably helped this along was back in the 1920s, publications such as Time Magazine would list things like honorary degrees and merits and have a whole section devoted to people who had kind of earned these things that deserved notification, things that deserved notice, in the back of the magazine, a small section of the magazine. And it would be headlined “Kudos Conferred During the Week,” but then followed by kind of a bullet list, so your interpretation is that this is a plural and that each of the following items on that list is a singular.

PETER: Which becomes a countable thing.

NEIL: A countable thing.

PETER: Sure.

EMILY: Yeah.

NEIL: Which then becomes each a singular kudo.

EMILY: When was that, did you say?

NEIL: This was in the 1920s.

EMILY: Okay.

NEIL: Yeah.

EMILY: Which is when, when our earliest evidence of singular kudo dates to. I think our dictionary says 1926, because we do enter kudo as a singular noun.

NEIL: As a singular noun.

EMILY: Dating to 1926. Meanwhile, kudos, the noncount noun, dates to 1831.

PETER: That’s a category, by the way, you know count, noncount, these are words that I learned when we prepared a dictionary for non-native speakers of English. Because most people who are native speakers of English, we don’t think consciously of grammar. Any native speaker of any language doesn’t think consciously of grammar. But the idea that in English we have some words like water or sand that are just sort of a group of things that are, are not countable is…

EMILY: Often a substance.


NEIL: So that’s called a mass noun.

PETER: Like a mass noun, yes.

NEIL: It’s like a mass, yes.

PETER: And if you look up kudos, for example, in our Learner’s Dictionary, this dictionary that we did work on, the three of us worked on, we actually give it as a kind of grammatical piece of information. Because if you’re learning a language you need to know. Does it take a singular or a plural verb? We need to know if it’s a noncount noun and so this is, in that sense, an important grammatical point as well.

EMILY: Right.

NEIL: When it comes with plural nouns and singular nouns and singular nouns that have been derived from these nouns that have been interpreted as plural, there’s a history of other instances of this happening. The word cherry, we have a regular plural for this. We say cherry or cherries. But the French noun was cherise. That is what the term used for a single cherry. We heard this, adopted it into English, but we heard it as a plural. So we heard it as like the bunch of fruit would be cherise; from there…

PETER: We lopped off the S.

NEIL: We lopped off the S and a single one would be a cherry.

PETER: So it’s reanalysis of a kind.

EMILY: That’s right. This is, that was actually adopted during the period of Middle English, so this is after the Norman Invasion, all these French speakers have come to England with their language…

PETER: Confusing us.

EMILY: … and they are imposing it on all the English speakers. And the English speakers were not reading it. They were hearing it.

NEIL: They were hearing it.

EMILY: That’s right. So they didn’t know what this word looked like, but they heard that it was cherries, or cherise.

AMMON: Did anybody complain, or did, when did usage guides start complaining about the singular kudo?

NEIL: There has not been much complaint, because people are just so comfortable with it. I think there are originalists who might be wishing the English would adhere to the Greek origin.

PETER: Well there’s always like that pedantic point, that you know, “In Greek it’s actually…”

NEIL: Right. And just like people want English to remain like Latin.

PETER: And think of the Latin words like biceps and triceps, which also look plural but are singular.

NEIL: They look plural. And homo sapiens.

PETER: Oh right, exactly.

NEIL: Which, you know, is the scientific name for the human person. If we use it to mean a person, then we want to say homo sapien.

PETER: Right, right, right, right.

NEIL: And then we are all somehow plural homo sapiens.

AMMON: We’re very familiar with people complaining words that have come in from the French and stuff like that, but maybe from the Greek it gets a pass unless you’re really educated and pedantic.

NEIL: You’d have to absolutely know, and then have a reason for it not to be.

PETER: Species is another one.

NEIL: Species is another.

AMMON: Right. That was one of the few instances in which James Murray, the first editor in chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, kind of vented. He had a little editorial aside in the OED and it was under the entry for pneumatic. He said it was absurd that we no longer pronounce the P in words with P-N because that’s how it would’ve been in Greek, I think. Of course nobody says "p-neumatic."

NEIL: No, because that is like a weird letter combination if you’re pronouncing it in English.

AMMON: He wanted to preserve the Greek into our language, which doesn’t often happen.

NEIL: But a modern example that I really like and I’ve noticed lately is the noun pilates.

PETER: Oh yes.

NEIL: Used for an exercise regimen named after German-born man who created it.

PETER: So it’s not a Greek word.

NEIL: It is just a name. His name happens to be Pilates. But because Pilates is about movements and other exercises like aerobics, calisthenics, are kind of phrased in that same plural because it’s about replication of movements. People have been interpreting Pilates as a plural and will sometimes say, “I’m going to a Pilate class” or “I’m doing this Pilate-like movement.” So they take this name that was never singular to begin with, it was just a name, and took a singular noun out of it. And it just kind of flows into their natural English system.

PETER: It shows that the language has kind of its own force of gravity, that it’s gonna pull everything toward some kind of logic.

EMILY: The S as a plural marker is so powerful in English. It’s really very basic. It’s one of the first inflections that children acquire when they’re learning English.

PETER: Absolutely.

EMILY: My two-year-old doesn’t have a hard time with plural S. But she has a hard time with transitivity sometimes, so that plural S marker is very powerful.

NEIL: People often care about how it looks on the word. Its look on the word is how we determine the singular. Because our local baseball team is called the Boston Red Sox, that X is meant to phonetically represent C-K-S, and yet people often are hesitant to say “that player is a Boston Red Sock.” (all laugh) It feels wrong. Maybe it’s because it’s metonymy, because it’s not really socks running around on the field.

PETER: Right right right.

EMILY: I like that idea, though.

NEIL: Yeah, but I think they hesitate; they kinda find a way around it. They’ll say “Red Sox player.” Sometimes you will find a singular “he has been a Red Sock for four years.” It’s hard to get that singular Red Sock and have it sound natural.

EMILY: Yeah you gotta go with Red Sock player. I think you do, right?

NEIL: I’ve heard, yeah, “Red Sox players,” but the most obvious way…

PETER: But you could say “he’s a Yankee.”

NEIL: That’s easy to do, because you think of Yankees as people. It’s a plural of the notion that each is a Yankee going out there.

PETER: Right, going out there.

NEIL: Just like each is a Cub, each is a Dodger, each is a Pirate, each is a Bear. But you can’t really do that with Red Sox.

AMMON: But you know Emily did point out how powerful the plural S marker is, couldn’t we just make the team name “The Plural S Markers”? I mean if you really want to get a little meta about it.

EMILY: They would totally dominate.

NEIL: Just call it that.

AMMON: I mean what is more powerful than a plural S marker?

EMILY: If lexicographers were in charge of baseball team names…

AMMON: Right. If we named baseball teams, we’d have the Functional Shifts and the Plural S Markers.

NEIL: It would change everything and things would just move more cleanly.

EMILY: I expect we’re gonna have the funding for this very soon.

PETER: But would there be a designated hitter?

(music break)

EMILY: You’re listening to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. We’ll be back after this break with pronunciation conundrums from Latin. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

PETER: I’m Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

NEIL: I’m Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

(music break)

EMILY: Welcome back to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. In the first half of this episode, we heard about Greek. Now we’ll turn to Latin. Despite being a dead language that’s had no native speakers for probably 1200 years, Latin is still actively making contributions to English, with the result being lots of Latiny-looking words that English speakers don’t always know what to do with. Especially confusing can be the letters A-E, which say one thing in algae but possibly another thing in the plural of larva. Next up, editor Emily Brewster—hey, that’s me!—will try to figure out what’s going on with these confusing Latin-derived terms.

EMILY: I have an elementary school-aged child who’s learning about insects, and he came home talking about the little appendages on the top of an insect’s head. They are called…

AMMON: Stick ears.

NEIL: Antenn-AY?

EMILY: Antenn-AY, okay.

PETER: Antenn-EYE?

EMILY: Antenn-EYE.

AMMON: I’m sticking with stick ears.

EMILY: Other options would be antenn-UHs. Officially, in our dictionary, the word is antenn-EE. The word, of course, is spelled A-N-T-E-N-N-A-E. It’s a Latin word. The singular is with just the A and as a Latin noun it pluralizes with this E. But this A-E plural signifier appears in a number of English words and it has different pronunciations depending on what the word is. So in our dictionaries, as I said, for antennae it’s antenn-EE, which is also what it is in algae.

PETER: Alg-EE, yeah, you don’t say alg-EYE.

EMILY: Right. But another one that also confuses people is alumn…

PETER: Yeah.


PETER. Alum-NAY, alum-NEYE, alum-NEE.


AMMON: Even alums.

EMILY: Right. That helps. And actually with the alums, two pronunciations are sanctioned by the dictionary. Alum-NEYE and alum-NEE. Anyway, because of this I was thinking about the plural being antenn-EE and not antenn-EYE, and then I was thinking about these other words, so I did a little digging into is there a system in English for why some A-E plurals are pronounced \EE\ and some are pronounced \EYE\ and just what is up with that? So it turns out that the A-E comes from a Latin diphthong, and of course a diphthong is a sound that is articulated in two different parts of the mouth. So it starts out with your mouth is in one position and then it kind of slides to another position, like in the vowel sound \OW. You know in \EE\ your mouth stays really in the same position; with \OW\ it goes from an \AH\ to an \OO\ kind of a sound. So it started out in Latin being a diphthong that was pronounced, and this is what linguists think because we don’t actually know what the very, very dead native Latin speakers were speaking originally, but we believe that it was pronounced \EYE\, like in my. So in that case it would be antenn-EYE.

PETER: Uh huh.

EMILY: But, like English, Latin changed over the course of the many years that it was spoken, and it shifted from being pronounced EYE to being pronounced EE. So at some point the Latin speakers had to shift just as we all over the history of the English language have changed our pronunciation of things. The A-E started to be pronounced with \EE\, and that is why the long E exists in a bunch of Latin-derived English words like algae, Caesar, _aqua vitae, and also antennae. But this older \EYE\ pronunciation stuck around, and our pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster thought that it was likely because people who formally studied Latin were taught the original Latin pronunciation. And so that hung on.

PETER: So classical Latin versus whatever the developed language was. And interesting that E sound is where it lands in the Romance languages too.

EMILY: That’s right.

PETER: Which must be a parallel, or actually the same, development.

EMILY: Right, but these Latin purists then wanted to pronounce it the original way it had been pronounced in Latin.

PETER: To go back.

EMILY: Even though they were studying it as a dead language.

AMMON: The Latinists were always screwing things up for the rest of us, I have to say. I mean there are all these words in English that we borrow from other languages, and typically when a word comes into English from another language we drop that original language’s case endings or way of pluralizing it. It becomes an English word with English endings. Except that the Latinists really kind of still push. It’s not the Latinists’ fault, but when we get words from Latin a lot of times we get this weird kind of vestigial case ending or pluralization. Like, there are still people who insist that stadium is properly pluralized as stadia, even though nobody really says stadia. Same thing with data, datum, etc. And so is this another case of they just are trying to hold onto the tail end of a dead language once it comes into English? Or does it make sense?

PETER: I bet it’s more of a Renaissance phenomenon, where the learned language was Latin and it was therefore still an active language for speakers of English, do you know what I’m saying? In other words they were using Latin professionally and in their writing, people like Newton and Descartes, they were writing in Latin, but in the modern era. They were speaking languages that we would completely, easily understand as far as English and French goes, but their Latin was the scholarly shared language and they, I assume, then would drop that into their modern languages. Not as a holdover of classical period, but as a kind of new Latin or scientific Latin from the modern period.

NEIL: It’s interesting that their publications and stuff would be in Latin, but then that would affect their pronunciation. Because unless they’re reading the documents aloud, you know, to each other, how do they even have a pronunciation at that point?

PETER: Well you have academia. You would have people sitting in a lecture hall listening to a lecture on Descartes, and there actually is a small population of people then who would be hearing Latin.

AMMON: Several hundred years ago they were still writing grammars of English in Latin.

PETER: Like this is not ecclesiastical Latin, because of course these people were often hearing it in church every week, and that was a different sound for a lot of these words. The church Latin kind of stayed in one place and the scientific Latin was slightly different.

EMILY: Right.

PETER: So there are these elements of a kind of living Latin. The second Vatican Council was only in the 1960s, so my parents heard the mass in Latin every week. Ammon is exactly right. These inflections from borrowed words, in almost any other case, would be Anglicized. Except for Latin and some Greek, right? There are some of these Greek terms.

EMILY: Recently we have a word of the day, the word luftmensch, and the plural of luftmensch is luftmenschen, which is the German plural of the word. The plural of the Enlgish word, this is an English borrowing from German, but the English plural is luftmenschen. It’s the German plural.

PETER: But that kind of proves the opposite point, which is rather than being very old, like the Latin terms, it’s clearly a modern borrowing. It’s clearly very new to English.

EMILY: Luftmensch.

PETER: Yeah. And so we’re honoring this modern German inflection partly because the word is so transparently German…

EMILY: That’s right.

PETER: … that you’re gonna emphasize its German-ness by virtue of using it at all. And so interestingly that our research has indicated that people emphasize it in this way by inflecting it that way. It’s funny, French is kind of immune to this because most of the plurals are silent in French. When you add an S, you actually usually don’t hear it, and so maybe that’s an interesting case too, that these are easily pronounced and easily heard, so therefore easily distinguished by a listener. My question to you has to do with gender, also. With alum-NEYE, alum-NEE, there is an issue of former students of a university who are women are pronounced how? Alum…

EMILY: Well a single woman is an alumna.

PETER: Alumna.

EMILY: And the plural of that is alum-NEE or alum-NEYE. A number of these English words that end in the A-E Latin plural, both pronunciations are fully accepted. And then a man of course is an alumnus.

PETER: And the plural?

EMILY: Is alum-NEYE.

PETER: With an EYE. So alum-NEE pronunciation, for example, could emphasize the distinction between a group of women who are graduates as opposed to a group of men, alum-NEE, alum-NEYE. It’s interesting and a little bit complicated.

EMILY: It’s very complicated. And actually alum-NEYE has come to be used for any group of graduates. The male plural in English has become generalized.

PETER: And do you think we’re also seeing alums just kind of much…

NEIL: Yeah I’m seeing it a lot more. Probably as just, alum, as just a word on its own becoming more acceptable. And so I’m not sure if this is necessarily a way to avoid the plural so much as just that alum feels like a natural clipping that people have just come to accept.

AMMON: Sure. It’s a pluralized clip. It was cut down and then people are just taking it as on its own. One of the reasons at least I’m seeing it a lot is because I’m seeing people complaining about it a lot. It kind of beefs up its presence but it also I think is indicative of the fact that people don’t complain about things that aren’t being used. By virtue of the fact that we’re seeing a lot of complaints, I think it means that it’s actually gaining a foothold.

PETER: Yeah. And if you’re even slightly unsure, as I might be, then it’s a safer bet for an English speaker to just pluralize it like an English word.

EMILY: Absolutely.

AMMON: Better to be groundbreaking than wrong.

EMILY: Well the clipped form is absolutely safer than stopping yourself and thinking “okay, it’s alum-NUH, alum-NEE, or is that alum-NEYE?” But using alum is just much safer ground for any speaker who cares about these things.

PETER: And really what it does, it presupposes that you have a knowledge of Latin grammar, which was pretty solid until mid-20th century. If you had gone to a university long enough to graduate, you would know which inflection to use.

EMILY: Which among us studied Latin formally in school?

NEIL: I studied it in high school. We had about five years of it.

AMMON: Yeah. I did it in high school as well, then after high school for a couple of years.

PETER: I had a little in high school and a little in college too.

EMILY: Wow. I had none in high school or college. All the Latin that I know I have learned while being a lexicographer and just studying the English language. I studied German, and my school offered German, French, and Spanish.

PETER: I’ve learned a lot more Latin since working with languages and looking at etymologies. So reading etymologies I’ve found has actually much increased my Latin ability. But then again keep in mind that means that you don’t really need to know grammar; you’re really just looking at the words themselves in a kind of isolated state.

NEIL: We learned Latin mostly as kind of a gateway to the French or Spanish classes that we knew we would be taking. This was a public school. We didn’t really have to do a lot of pronouncing at the time. It was a lot of, it was just writing sentences on paper and so if we tried to pronounce in class we were usually butchering the pronunciation. Your question at the beginning here, you asked how we would pronounce the plural of antenna, I said antenn-AY, which is like the very wrong answer apparently. Nobody says that. But I guess I’m going by A) the fact that antennae is not a word I pronounce in my lifetime often anyway. I don’t talk about insects and anatomy all that much. But I suspect that is a word that I’m going to be inclined to pronounce as I see, the A-E ending I might see a word, like, that has nothing to do with Latin, like reggae or the name Mae, M-A-E, long A, I would think I’m going with that. So it’s kind of interesting that, perhaps with that being a scientific term, that’s a term that I’m going to be really inclined just to pronounce as I see. Because I’m finding it in writing and I’m not gonna be having conversations about insects that often.

EMILY: Yeah there’s no shame in Anglicizing a pronunciation that you see as an English speaker.

NEIL: Right.

EMILY: You know, this word, as fewer and fewer people study Latin formally, these may change. The pronunciations of these Latinate terms may change in English. And also of course the TV antenna pluralizes with an S.

PETER: Antennas.

EMILY: Antennas.

PETER: Yeah.

EMILY: As a non-biology term, basically.

PETER: So context kind of determines that, or predetermines it. And also shows that we’re not talking about science here, or it’s a different kind of science.

EMILY: It’s a different kind of science, yeah.

PETER: Sure. And then there’s the other terms, like the plural of octopus, which famously has three different ones. An English one, a Latin one, and a Greek one. And there must be a whole category of words that fall into that, you know that have multiple…

EMILY: Well octopus is a really strange one because it was given this Latin plural even though it’s a Greek word.

PETER: Okay.

EMILY: So the Greek plural would be octopodes, which is used in British English but isn’t really used in American English.


EMILY: And because people mistunderstood it as being a Latin word, they gave a plural octopi.

PETER: Octopi. But octopuses

EMILY: Is a good, sound English plural.

PETER: Yeah. Okay.

EMILY: Of an English word that comes from Greek.

PETER: Really that is the bottom line, is if you’re speaking English you can inflect using English inflections. And that’s pretty much always going to work. I mean no one will misunderstand you and no one will criticize your Latin pronunciation if you do it

EMILY: Right. We’re here speaking English.

(music outro)

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

(end music)

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