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Saturday, November 24, 2012 / Duncan Forgan

Pedants Corner: Dwarves vs Dwarfs


The coming release of The Hobbit in cinemas brings to mind a common mistake amongst astronomers (and the general public) when they come to the plural of “dwarf”.

These are brown dwarfs… (Hubble image of Orion)

…and these are dwarves wearing brown

Science is a global practice.  It just so happens that most scientists have adopted English as lingua franca, requiring non-native speakers to be able to use it to communicate with the admittedly lazy native speakers.

On the face of it, English is not exactly a good choice for a universal language (of course, it wasn’t exactly chosen, but rather foisted upon much of the world during the colonial period, and the British Empire cemented its familiarity and use).  Its history is the history of a perpetually invaded and embattled island kingdom.

The language is a heady mix of Germanic, Latin, Norse, French, and other invasive languages, evolving from a creole in the medieval period to the modern English we know today.  As a result, it’s unmercifully bloated and obscure, with countless words, a partially collapsed declension system, no gender, a dizzying list of irregular verbs, and a baffling range of dialects and accents to confuse and terrify.  The situation is made even worse thanks to neologisms, new words that enter the language at a rate of several thousand per year.  Literature and other media makes their presence felt constantly (case in point, this year’s most famous neologism, omnishambles).

There are few pieces of literature with impact as great as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  While he was not responsible for the coining of the term, Tolkien adopted the plural “dwarves” for his fictional race of diminutive stonemasons, calling it

a piece of private bad grammar

The fact that this piece of bad grammar would be part of the third best-selling book of all time has understandably led some to accidentally use it (here’s an example from the Royal Astronomical Society’s own pages).

Am I pedantic? Absolutely.  It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, only the length of the last syllable in one word.  But I’ve accepted my fate as someone who’ll be frequently irritated by what I consider to be bad usage.  There’s not much you can do about an evolving language, especially one as beaten up and malleable as English.  Amongst native speakers, we can guess how quickly an irregular verb will regularise, and non-native speakers are developing an English variant that may soon be inaccessible to the native.

I’ll just need to focus my pedantry somewhere else

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