Monday, November 29, 2004

the slow death of the greco-latin plural

A generation ago (or was it two?), Marshall McLuhan could write a book called The Medium is the Message, and most people then pluralized "medium" as "media."

A bunch of loan-words from Latin and Greek used to be pluralized with "a," since that's the way it was done in those languages (for some words).

But we can no longer make up our minds about whether media is singular or plural. So also with bacteria (when was the last time you heard someone refer to a bacterium?). And lots of people treat the Greek loan criteria as singular (though it used to be the plural of criterion), even to the extent that they've invented a new, English-friendly plural for it: criterias.

It used to be that you could count on the NY Times to be futzy about stuff like this, but it looks like they've given up:

[The scientists] hope that a better understanding of how Arctic climate has varied over the millenniums will help them project the implications of the region's recent warming trend . . . Read it all (registration required).
Millenniums? I guess you can't say millennia without infringing Mazda's trademark.

Not that I'm complaining. I don't go around saying stadia or auditoria, though that's they way stadium and auditorium would be pluralized in Latin. And even though the Romans had a Colosseum, I don't mind going to the Greensboro Coliseum.

UPDATE: media (singular) has an English-ized plural, too: medias.

Google is a great resource for linguistic research into English as she is spoke!

5 comments:

Tim Worstall said...

Media? Stadia? Auditoria? Bacterium? There are still a few of us who (at least attempt) to get these things right. Can’t do the English crosswords if you forget these.
Of course it really all went wrong way back when, as CP Snow said about Television. It’s a combination of a greek root and a latin one, and no good will come of it.
Some of us also find more modern uses for old phrases as in:
http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/2004/10/ceterum_censeo_.html

Pat said...
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Pat said...
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ukyank said...

Excellent topic, as an American living in the UK, I tend to come up against this issue often. What I usually say is, "language is an organic structure and consequently forced to change over time and use." Saying this does get me a lot of strange looks (people can't fathom the organic structure to verbiage) but it also leads to other interesting conversations.

PETRVS said...

I've heard someone (ok, me) say "criterium", thinking that this was the proper Latin singular...doh!

BTW, it's nice to find a fellow conservative in the Classics world. I'm a post-bac at UPenn and man is it liberal up here. Cura ut valeas!!