13 April 2007

a piece of pasta

today's Frazz muses on plural and singular forms of words that have been borrowed into English:

for a Bryson Elementary student, this girl has quite the knack for spotting such words, and is basing her assumption on such common pairs as cactus~cacti or syllabus~syllabi (to avoid the issue that standard English plural formation works perfectly fine with these nouns, yielding equally valid* cactuses and syllabuses). she's unfortunately made her morphological leap of faith based upon the wrong language. although ravioli looks like a Latin plural, it is—just like the food it represents—purely Italian. thus the singular should be raviolo. raviolo is actually quite well attested: 95,000 Italian Google hits and citation in Wiktionary, which is even so bold to say that raviolo is the English singular form!
*apparently the Firefox spellcheck doesn't think so, but the OED backs me up.

i already knew that words for different types of pasta inflected for singular and plural in Italian, from the first time that i heard the phrase un gnocco (which rather startled me at the time). it seems that virtually all of the food terms borrowed from Italian to English are in the plural for some reason.

uno zucchino ~ due zucchini - English zucchini/zucchini(s)
uno cannolo ~ due cannoli - English cannoli/cannoli(s)
uno gnocco ~ due gnocchi - English gnocchi/gnocchi

i only got used to using the singular forms after i had spent some time in Italy.

but what about spaghetti? the singular form exists in Italian, but is rare. but given the proper context, it can be used, such as:

c'e solo uno spaghetto sulla piata
"there's only one piece of spaghetti on the plate"

aha! there's the difference! words falling under the semantic category of pasta are count nouns in Italian, but are treated as mass nouns in English. to refer to just one piece in English, a partitive construction is required. but in Italian, a simple singular will suffice. this fact also can account for why the plural form was borrowed into English, since mass nouns almost always exhibit plural morphology. it doesn't quite explain zucchini and cannoli, which are clearly count nouns, but perhaps if spaghetti made its way over to English first, their plural forms followed simply by analogy.

the real question is if whether we had borrowed zucchino and cannolo whether we would refer to multiples of them as zucchinos and cannolos, or if we'd louse up their plural formations as we have with so many other words. if we were real sticklers for retaining native morphology we could have such fun words in English. to close, some of my favorite foreign plurals that lost out to Latinate or regular English plural formation:

hippopotamus ~ hippopotamoi
octopus ~ octopodes
prospectus ~ prospectūs

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