Friday, 10 October 2008

the grammar of the Maple Leafs

John McIntyre tells us that Martha Brockenbrough (from the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar) wrote to the chairman of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team to complain about "their irresponsible plural." I guess this is the letter, where she complains that it should be Maple Leaves.

Steven Pinker talks about this in chapter 5 of The Language Instinct - in fact he explains why Maple Leafs is pluralized the way it is.

English has two kinds of compounds: exocentric or headless compounds and headed compounds. Headless compounds are compound words where the meaning is not specified by any of the parts:
still life
sabre tooth
Maple Leaf

A flatfoot is not a foot, a still life is not a kind of life, a sabre tooth is not a kind of tooth (it's a prehistoric tiger), and a Maple Leaf is not a kind of leaf. Compare this with headed compounds, where the meaning of the whole compound is specified by the head word:

... which are kinds of houses, boards, and birds respectively.

Headless and headed compounds behave differently. Headless compounds are usually pluralized by adding s. It's as if the headless compound is an indivisible unit, and the plural marker can't see inside it to pluralize it according to the how the head word is normally pluralized. As Pinker says, "If low-life does not get its meaning from life, it cannot get its plural from life either." So our headless compounds above are pluralized like this:
still lifes
sabre tooths
Maple Leafs

and not like this:

still lives
sabre teeth
Maple Leaves

On the other hand, headed compounds form their plurals the same way their head words form their plurals. So the headed compound "maple leaf" - a kind of leaf - is pluralized "maple leaves".


Drew said...

Awesome. You've once again taught me something that I understood, to an extent, but didn't know the name for. This subject came up for me in gradeschool when a classmate asked about the Disney cartoon Darkwing Duck, in which the main character lived next a neighbor family by the name of the Muddlefoots. Our teacher was asked why it would be Muddlefoots and not Muddlefeet. Whether the teacher actually new what exocentric compounds were or not, she talked us through this.


Jonathon said...

The cool thing about this is that it turns out that people have more complex rules of grammar in their heads than some people give them credit for. "Maple Leafs" isn't a result of sloppiness or laziness or anything like that—it's part of a very regular system of rules.

Mighty Red Pen said...

Oh, I'm glad you know the actual rule for this. When I read about the "irresponsible plural" letter, something about "Maple Leaves" didn't sit right with me (with all due respect to Martha). But I couldn't for the life of me begin to know where to find something to back up my gut feeling!

Gabe said...

Great analysis! Hockey would be devastated if the Leafs were to change their name. Like Jonathon said, it's so satisfying to realize just how complex our mental representations of grammar are.

pete1050 said...

The reason the Maple Leafs are pluralized with 's' as opposed to 'leaves' is that they are a pluralization of a proper noun; they were named after the 'Maple Leaf' regiment of WW1. If they were directly named from the leaf of a maple tree, they should be called the Maple Leaves.

goofy said...

pete1050: You might be right that the team was named after the 'Maple Leaf' regiment of WW1. But I think you're wrong in saying that if the name came directly from the word for the leaf of the maple tree, it would be pluralized "Maple Leaves".

The name is still a headless compound, whatever its history. Headless compounds tend to be pluralized regularly.

John Cowan said...

There are exceptions, though, like the Blackfeet, who keep the irregular plural even though they are not feet. Tenderfeet also competes with tenderfoots.

Alan said...

I'm new to this blog, and it's already brought cheer to a rainy Sunday night. Sad to hear that it's Blackfeet though :(

goofy said...

Other exceptions are greenlighted/greenlit and (computer) mice/mouses