Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.
Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”
The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.
What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison).
Why does the vowel push up? Is it an uprising, a prison break? No: it is an assimilation. Welcome to the machine. Here is how it works: a word has a vowel that is low or back in the mouth (or both), and then—just on the other side of a consonant—it gets a suffix with a vowel that is high in the front of the mouth (i, generally, though ü could do it too). And that i in the suffix, that secret agent for the mutants, exerts a mysterious force on the vowel that was already there in the root. The root vowel wants to be more like that i. It moves towards it.
It’s not really such a mysterious force, actually. It’s just economy of effort. (“Laziness” is what your grandma probably called it.) If your tongue is going to have to be up there anyway, why not get there a little sooner? If you think about it, you’ll realize we do this all the time with all sorts of letters. For example, we move the n in think back to the same place as the k.
So where is the suffix-causing mutation in all these words: feet, teeth, geese, and so on? It’s long gone now. We lost many suffixes over time. But a long time ago, they were there. And the vowels moved towards them. And then moved some more. There was fót (foot), plural fóti, which moved the o forwards to assimilate and become fœti. Then it lost the i—and the agent of assimilation disappeared! And, over time, the œ unrounded and became a long e. And then the Great Vowel Shift occurred and long e moved up and became just like the old long i. The imitation of the lost i was complete. The mutation took over. It did not affect the singular, but there is danger in numbers: where there are two or more, the mutation takes over. Foot, feet; goose, geese; tooth, teeth; man, men; book, beek.
Only not beek. But in the past it was! Yes, in Old English, a millennium ago, book pluralized the same way: bóc (the form of the word at that time) became béc. But between then and now, it regularized to books. Many other words that had this mutation also regularized. The mutation is curable, you see. It has to be taught at each new generation, in fact: all those parents saying, “It’s not foots. It’s feet.” (There was never hice, though; it wasn’t in the noun class that the mutant agents infiltrated. And moose was taken in the 1600s from a North American language, so it missed the mutant plague altogether.)
But wait! There’s more. Plural nouns are not the only things subject to i-mutation. Think about strength, length, and filth: they’re formed from strong, long, and foul (yes, foul, which in Old English was fúl). How does –th cause this assimilation mutation? (For clarity, I’m using th in place of the old runic-derived character þ that was actually used.) It was once, a long time ago, –ithu. So strongithu became strengithu, which became strength when the provocative agent i disappeared (and so did u).
There’s even more. Some verbs formed from nouns or adjectives, and the verb ending had—you guessed it—an i in it that disappeared once it had done its job. So fóda (food) plus the –ian suffix became fédan (feed). The same thing gave us tell from tale, fill from full, deem from doom, and even heal—originally hælan—from hál, the source of modern hale and whole. Causative verbs could also be formed from the past tenses of other verbs: for instance, drincan (drink), past tense dranc, got this mutating agent on it to make it drencan (drench). It’s even where we got lay from lie…but the difference between the past-tense læg and the causative lecgan disappeared over time and they merged as lay.
In fact, the larger part of these Old English i-mutants was neutralized by mergers. Remember that Great Vowel Shift I mentioned? In many cases, vowels and diphthongs that were different in Old English ended up sounding—and even being spelled—the same in Modern English. Our old noun léoht (light) and mutant verb líehtan, and thurst (thirst) and thyrstan, and weorc (work) and wyrcan—and oh, so many more—have come back together. Others (like beek) were lost due to regularization, and still others were lost because we just don’t use those words anymore—no frófor and fréfran, meaning “comfort,” noun and verb, respectively. But for the most part, the mutants that were formed by phonology were neutralized by phonology; the power that created them destroyed them. And no new mutants are being created…well, not of this kind, anyway.
James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.
This article was copy edited by Savanna Scott Leslie.