Let’s Get Laut! (Part 1)

Mouse. Goose. Man. Swim. Drive. Bite.

These are some words students of English everywhere have learned to fear. Why? Because they’re rebel words: they won’t bow to the rules which would make English grammar so much simpler.

“Mouses”? That’s what the system wants, man! Go “mice”!

“Swimmed”? Pshaw! It’s “swam” or death!

Rise, Товарищ, smash the imperialist suffixes!

But why is it like that? Why can’t these words just behave and spare English students all the grief? Why do their vowels have to jump around like rocket-powered rabbits in a carrot field?

Well, turns out they have two very good reasons to do that, and those reasons are two lovely German siblings called umlaut and ablaut.

Aren’t they cute?

Let’s talk about the first of these for a bit.

Umlaut

Umlaut is the younger sibling: he’s just a little over 1000 years old!

His name literally means “sound alteration” in German, and he is a kind of assimilation or vowel harmony that appeared in two out of the three main branches of the Germanic family, leaving poor East Germanic behind.

Lots of sad goths out there.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard

Vowel harmony is a process in which the vowels of a word shift their sound to become more similar to another vowel, bringing all them roughly in the same part of the mouth (and therefore making it simpler to pronounce them in sequence).

In some languages, such as Finnish or Turkish, this process happens all the time, and vowels on suffixes must be “adapted” to the vowels of the word they are to be attached to to be grammatically sound. For example, the vowels “a” and “ö” cannot be together in any native Finnish word: if you want to add an “a” to a word with “ö” sounds, you have to turn it into “ä” first.

Umlaut is a rather more limited form of vowel harmony, because it usually only extends one syllable to the left in languages in which it appears.

In Germanic, it only happened in the past, and only involved the vowels /a/, /u/ and, most importantly, /i/. In this post, we’re going to concentrate on the umlaut involving the vowel /i/, because it’s the one that most influenced modern English.

If Germanic words were American high-schools (or Japanese ones, depending on your tastes in entertainment), then /i/ would have been the cool kid. Everyone wants to be like /i/: he’s smart, athletic and almost sinfully handsome.

Notice me, senpai!

Whenever he’s around, the back vowels /a/, /o/ and /u/ try to look like him, hoping to attract his attention. They never succeed entirely, no-one can be like /i/, but they come as close as they can. Only /e/ remains aloofː he’s a bookish geek, and doesn’t care about these status games.[1] Also, he’s already pretty similar to /i/, because he possesses the thing that makes /i/ so coolː frontness.

In the classroom of the mouth, /i/ and /e/ always sit in the front rows, near the teeth, while /a/, /o/ and /u/ are confined to the back, near the squishy soft palate. Ew.

When /i/ appears, everyone shuffles their desks forward to be near him. However, they can’t be too conspicuous, or they’ll appear desperate. That’s why they only move forwards if they are within one syllable to his left.

Suppose one of these words looks like this:

*mūs

Here’s /u/, happily minding its own business. But when the word is plural, it looks like thisː

*mūsiz

Well look who appeared on the sceneǃ It’s good ol’ /i/, and he’s right in the next syllableǃ /u/ almost panicsː this is his chance to be seen with the cool kidǃ He shuffles his desk forward and becomes /y/.

*mȳsiz

Time passes, /i/ and /z/ graduate from the school of language change and disappear from the word. /y/ is behind on a few exams and remains where he is.

mȳs

He’s really important nowː if he moved his desk back and became /uː/ again, the speakers of the school’s language would not be able to tell the plural of the word from the singularǃ

Eventually, through hard study and the unrounding of front vowels in the passage between Old and Middle English, /y/ finally lives the dreamː he becomes /i/ǃ Now he’s the cool kidǃ

mīs

He’s hardly finished celebrating when the Great Vowel Shift sweeps the language like a storm, sending vowels flying all over the place. Now the singular form sounds like /maʊs/, and the plural like /maɪs/. Our words have now becomeː

mouse and mice

And that’s how they’ve looked ever sinceǃ To summarise, /u/’s path when near /i/ was /u/ > /y/ > /i/ > /aɪ/.

The other back vowels also had similar pathsː /o/ > /ø/ > /e/ > /i/ gave rise to words such as goose/geese, and /a/ > /æ/ > /ɛ/ gave rise to the word man/men.

What did the words that make their plural with regular -s have that set them apart from these? Well, it’s simpleː their plurals didn’t involve /i/. Instead, they had some boring other vowel. Usually /a/.

It’s important to note that this process only took place in native Germanic words. That’s why it’s goose/geese, but not moose/meeseː the word “moose” is not Germanic at allǃ It comes from an Algonquian language of Canada, and therefore never went through the umlaut process.

Finally, many words which once formed their plural through umlaut were later regularised to form it with -s. If this hadn’t happened, the plural of cow would be kye, and the plural of book would be… beech.

A veritable library.

So there you have it: that’s why some words in English have crazy plurals. What about the verbs with the crazy past tenses? Well, you’ll have to wait for a future post, when we’ll examine umlaut’s older sister, ablaut.

In the meantime, stay tuned for next week, when Rebekah will start us on a journey on why English spelling looks so bafflingly insane.

  1. Be like /e/, guys.

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