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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Safe as hice

Some nice hice in San Francisco.

Plurals seem to be the flavour of the month, with readers asking why many moose aren't meese, and this leads inevitably to the question, "If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn't the plural of house ... hice?"

"Mouse" was mus in Anglo-Saxon. Way back, when the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in England, its plural was musiz (pronounced moo-seez). Just as with "goose", the sound in the second syllable affected the first syllable (the phenomenon called "i-mutation"). Whereas gosiz became ges, musiz became mys (pronounced "meese"). With the Great Vowel Shift, this became the "mice" that we know today.

The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of "house" (hus), however, belonged to a category of noun, like the ancestor of "deer", where the form was the same in the singular and the plural. One hus, two hus. So there were no husiz to precipitate the i-mutation that would have led eventually to a plural "hice". 

Two house, two housen, two houses?
The unchanged plural "house" (one house, two house) actually survived into the 14th century, but it was ultimately defeated by two other possibilities. One was an irregular plural "housen", which still survives in some dialects.  Inevitably, though, the strength of the regular "add (e)s to make the plural" pattern in English gathered "house" to its ample bosom and "houses" was the ultimate winner.

But, just to make life difficult for ESL learners, we added a subtle pronunciation change to the plural. Whereas the "s" in "house" is pronounced with a hissing "SS" sound, without the vocal cords vibrating, that same "s" in "houses" is pronounced like a "z", with the vocal cords vibrating. (If you put your hand on your throat and hiss a "ss" followed by a "zz" you can feel the difference).

This phenomenon is caused by the fact that the consonant is between two vowels, and to utter a vowel, you HAVE to vibrate your vocal cords, so it's easier to keep vibrating them for the consonant in the middle as well.  This voicing of consonants between vowels (intervocalic consonants) has existed in English since the earliest times.

T becomes D, F becomes V, S becomes ...
We North Americans voice our intervocalic t's (e.g. "tutor" sounds like "Tudor"), and English has many words where an unvoiced "f" becomes a voiced "v" in the plural where the "e" following the "f" used to be pronounced: wife/wives, half/halves, leaf/leaves, life/lives, loaf/loaves, and so on.  With those, at least we indicate the change in sound by the spelling. But  "houses" is the only example in standard English of a plural where a voiceless intervocalic s becomes voiced. Think of words like "buses", "asses", "cases", "bases", "cabooses" (no, the plural is not "cabeese"!) and so on.

HOUZes or HOUSSes?
Being the sole example of a pronunciation phenomenon in the language is not good for phonetic job security. Inevitably the predominant regular pattern will start influencing the irregular one. And indeed, a reader from Michigan informs me that her children (in their fifties) pronounce "houses" with a voiceless ss sound, that is, "HOUSSez", although she herself says "HOUZes". I conducted a poll of my facebook friends, and of 73 who responded, only one, from Ohio, said "HOUSSez". Nonetheless, Merriam-Webster dictionaries include both pronunciations for the plural, and there is chatter on the Internet about the voiceless version (complaining about it, naturally). I cannot for the life of me understand why people get so upset about slight pronunciation differences. 

How do YOU pronounce "houses"?

For more information about mouse-related words (not to mention some titillating pictures), see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/08/of-mice-and-men.html

For some more examples of voiced intervocalic consonants, see these posts:

Congratulations, Women's Hockey Team! (Now, how do I say that?)

Off with their heads!

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  1. Houzez. But, I'll just have to try "cabeese" on my 8 year old.

  2. I say "houssez" for the plural noun and "houzes" for the verb. Have other people noticed/used this differentiation?

  3. Everyone says "houzes" for the verb, as far as I know. Where are you from?

  4. Presumably from the same Anglo-Saxon roots, the Dutch language singular is "huis" with the plural being "huizen" - close to the "housen" which you say survives in some English dialects. Are those specifically regional dialects?

    1. It would have been Germanic rather than specifically Anglo-Saxon for Dutch, but yes, they are clearly related. Here's some more info about the dialects that use "housen": According to Wakelin (1979: 20-21), the plural form housen has survived especially among older people and in two areas in particular: one comprising Essex and East Anglia, and the other in the west stretching from Herefordshire and Worcestershire through Gloucestershire to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, with occasional outliers. In Cambridgeshire, this plural form was probably in more general use before the 1970s (when the material for the present study was recorded) and ‘among older people’, as claimed by Wakelin, and as attested in an interview conducted for the present study: MH: Mm = but you use = they- your father always said housen – SS: Housen, they always did (Willingham) and by the SED responses (V.1.1) from the 1950s. The form housen for Cambridgeshire is also noted by Porter (1969: 400) in her list of Cambridgeshire words. Further evidence for this usage in East Anglia comes from the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century, in which, according to Claxton (1968: 8), “‘houses’ are usually called ‘houzen’”. [1] http://www.helsinki.fi/varieng/series/volumes/04/chapter6.html

  5. I knew a person from Maryland Eastern shore who pronounced "house" as "hoose" and "grouse" as "groose"

    I had never heard it before and have only heard it very rarely since.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.