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As there are plenty of nouns used as verbs, why is it that I do not shelf, but rather shelve, an idea? Since the -lves is just the special case plural of -lf, it seems curious that the -lve is used to construct the verb form.

I looked up some of the etymology, but it is of little use:

1591, "to overhang," back formation from shelves, plural of shelf. Meaning "put on a shelf" first recorded 1655; metaphoric sense of "lay aside, dismiss" is from 1812. Meaning "to slope gradually" (1614) is from M.E. shelven "to slope," from shelfe "grassy slope," related to shelf.

Is this an odd degredation of the word, or something else?

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Half/halve, bath/bathe, breath/breathe, life/live, sheath/sheathe, loss/lose (and so on). All of these pairs have a voiceless fricative for the noun and the voiced counterpart for the verb (f-v, θ-ð, s-z), often accompanied by some kind of vowel shift. –  Kosmonaut Apr 20 '11 at 21:21
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1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Whenever a verb and a noun are basically the same word, there is sometimes a tendency to differentiate their pronunciation. This can be done by shifting stress from one syllable to another: compare they will convict him with he is a convict. It can also be done by pronouncing a fricative (s, z, f, v) voiced (z, v) instead of voiceless (s, f): compare that is no use with I can't use that.

The spelling shelve as opposed to shelf has little to do with the plural of the noun: it is just a marker of pronunciation. Because /fs/ is quite unusual in English, the plural shelves happens to be pronounced with a voiced fricative (v), which happens to be represented by its spelling.

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So something like "I did shelve that project " is a degeneration of shelf? –  mfg Apr 20 '11 at 21:10
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@mg: Uhm, why a degeneration? Differentiation, rather. Because it is easier to distinguish verb and noun if they are pronounced differently, it is convenient to do so. I am not sure which pronunciation is older; but it is now established usage to write and pronounce the verb "shelve", with a voiced fricative, and the noun "shelf", unvoiced—except when the noun is pluralized: then it becomes "shelves". Luckily these forms are all spelled phonetically, unlike uze(verb)/use(noun) and others. –  Cerberus Apr 21 '11 at 1:08
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