January 03, 2004

Dwarves vs. dwarfs

John O'Neil wrote to point out an error in a recent post:

It's a minor sidelight to your recent post on Langugage Log on the "Theology of Phonology" to consider the plural of "dwarf". Without discussion, you firmly come down on the side of "dwarves", as does everyone who I have ever known actually to employ the plural of "dwarf".

Actually, John is far too kind. If I'd thought for a second, I'd have realized that Disney has "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", astronomers talk and write about "white dwarfs", and so on. Google has 615,000 "dwarfs" to 424,000 "dwarves". Dwarf should definitely go in the category of final-f words with variable plurals.

John goes on to write:

However, there is an urban legend, which might actually be true, that
"dwarves" was a invention of Tolkien's in "Lord of the Rings", as an
analogy to "elves" and with the desire not to slight the dwarven race
by giving them a more regular plural form. Before that, the story goes,
it was "dwarfs" since Middle English, and before that "dwarrows".

We can't completely blame Tolkien. The OED has both in the first half of the 19th century:

1818 W. TAYLOR in Monthly Mag. XLVI. 26 The history of Laurin, king of the dwarves. 1834 LYTTON Pilgrims of Rhine xxvi, The aged King of the Dwarfs that preside over the dull realms of lead.

A quick scan does suggest that google hits for "dwarves" tend more towards the fantasy realm, whereas the hits for "dwarfs" include the Disney animation, astronomy sites, small humans and plants, and the odd rock band. There are some fantasy usages for "dwarfs", but it looks like astronomers never use "dwarves".

The OED cites a bewildering variety of spellings from various periods:

duer, dweor, dweorh, dwæruh, dweru, dwer, dwere, dwergh, dwargh, dwarghe, duergh, dwerk, duerch, duerche, dorche, droich, dweruf, dwerf, dwerfe, dwerff, dwerffe, dwrfe, dwarfe, dwarff, dwarffe, dwearf, dwarf, duerwe, durwe, dwarw, dwerwh, dwerwhe, dwerwe, dwerowe, duorow, dwery, duery, dueri

I don't know enough about the history of English spelling to be able to figure out what range of sound patterns lie behind that list.

[Update: Bill Poser points out another issue -- spelling and sound don't necessarily correlate here...

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].

He's right. I agree with his judgments about "roofs" -- that's the only way to spell it, but I can pronounce it either way, likewise with the correlation between vowel quality and consonant voicing. But I have a different pattern with "dwarfs" -- because I can pronounce the plural either way, and because there are two spellings available, I guess I've always assumed that "dwarfs" was only pronounced with [f] and "dwarves" was only pronounced with [v].]

[Update #2: Daniel Ezra Johnson writes to point out that Tolkien discusses the plural of "dwarf" at some length in Appendix F of LOTR:

"It may be observed that in this book as in The Hobbit the form dwarves is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows), if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men, or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales, where at least a shadow of truth is preserved, or at last to nonsense-stories in which they have become mere figures of fun. But in the Third Age something of their old character and power is still glimpsed, if already a little dimmed: these are the descendants of the Naugrim of the Elder Days, in whose hearts still burns the ancient fire of Aule the Smith, and the embers smoulder of their long grudge against the Elves; in in whose hands still lives the skill in works of stone that none have surpassed.

It is to mark this that I have ventured to use the form dwarves, and so remove them a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days. Dwarrows would have been better; but I have used that form only in the name Dwarrowdelf, to represent the name of Moria in the Common Speech: Phurunargian_ For that meant 'Dwarf-delving', and yet was already a word of antique form. But Moria is an Elvish name, and given without love..."

Daniel adds that "this is told from a perspective within tolkien's mythology, and i'm not sure if he's really making the claim either that he invented the form "dwarves", or that in real English the expected plural would have been "dwarrows" (and i'm not enough of a historical linguist to answer that, but it seems at least partially backed-up by some of the OED spellings you uncovered)."

Maybe someone who knows about the history of English can clarify this.

Anyhow, my original point stands. The standard relationship between singular and plural pronunciations of English nouns ending in /f/ is inconsistent and indeed variable. Eliminating all the [-vz] plurals would make the system more consistent and easier to learn, but it would be a distinctly non-standard way of talking.]

[More here!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 3, 2004 01:41 PM