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The plural form of leaf is leaves, although according to Merriam-Webster leafs is also correct. Dwarf can be pluralized as either dwarfs or dwarves. Conversely, the words roof and safe are pluralized as roofs and safes.

Is there any logic underpinning these variations? Is there a historical trend where words that were previously pluralized as -ves are now being increasingly pluralized as -fs?

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Both roofs and rooves are perfectly acceptable alternatives in British English, as are hoofs, hooves. As [often homophobic] slang, I've seen pooves as well as poofs. But I think there's always a slow steady tendency for the irregular (-ves) forms to be displaced in favour of consistency with other plurals. – FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 17:25
A related question about the origin of the voiced '-ves' can be found here (with interesting answer) – ptriek Dec 14 '11 at 17:37
@FumbleFingers: Thanks for the additional examples, and for enlightening me that "hoofs" is actually a valid form. – Bjorn Dec 14 '11 at 18:23
@ Ptriek: Thanks Ptriek, that was an interesting read. Both that answer and Barry's answer below point towards a phonological cause for the "-ves" ending. – Bjorn Dec 14 '11 at 18:26
up vote 11 down vote accepted

So, the f->v shift can be traced back to Old English, where v wasn't its own letter, but merely an allophone of f. The /v/ pronunciation was used when it was placed between vowels or voiced consonants, and the /f/ pronunciation was used otherwise.

So the declination from wīf to wīfes meant that the actual pronunciation of the f went from /f/ to /v/ (much like today today), because it became positioned between two voiced vowels (I should point out, in OE wīfes was a two-syllable word [wiːvɛs]).

Now, over time, a few things happened:

  • V became its own phoneme and began to be represented in the orthography of English
  • English became less inflected
  • We stopped pronouncing the last syllable

So we have a couple competing forces:

  • With the v sound now entrenched in the spelling of many words, the idea of the f->ves for pluralization became a "rule" and was carried on and used by analogy when forming related/similar words.

  • However, with the lack of a vowel sound in the final syllable, there was no longer a need to force the voicing of the labial fricative, leaving us with two viable pronunciations/spellings: the unvoiced pair [fs] (-fs) or the voiced pair [vz] (-ves)

Now, I can't find a good source for determining which word used which one, so treat the following as my own supposition:

My expectation then is that when a particular word entered the lexicon would greatly influence which option is chosen. Words entering in Old and Middle English (and words derived from or related to them) would be much more likely to use the -ves option, while words entering later, particularly if they enter as loanwords from a Romance language, etc. would prefer the more regular -fs.

Additionally, now that there's no phonetic requirement to voice the consonant, we're seeing linguistic regularization kicking in, slowly pushing the -ves pluralization out in favor of the more regular -fs option. So forms like rooves / hooves start to give way to roofs / hoofs and depending on where they are in that process, you see that one form may be preferred over another, or they may both be equally viable.

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Nouns ending in an unvoiced consonant will normally form their plural with the sound /s/, (streets) while those ending in a voiced consonant or vowel will normally do so with the sound /z/ (roads, seas). Those ending in certain other sounds form their plurals with /ɪz/. So, from roof and safe we’d expect /s/, as heard and spelt in roofs and safes. From leaf and dwarf we’d expect leafs and dwarfs which is what we also get. But, as you say, we also get leaves and dwarves, with the terminal consonant /z/ rather than /s/.

It seems as if the long vowels in each of those two words, /ɪ:/ in leaf and /ɔ:/ in dwarf, can override the unvoiced consonants, /f/ in each case. That doesn’t happen with safe because the middle sound is the diphthong /eɪ/ rather than a long vowel. On the other hand, there is a long vowel, /u:/, in roof, and the plural can be realised as /ru:vz/ as well as /ru:fs/ and it is also sometimes spelt as rooves. But I must add the caution that I am not a phonetician and I am happy to be told by those with expertise in the area that I am wrong.

There is a distinction to be made between dwarf, an unusually short person, and dwarf, the creature of myth, folklore and film. However, the former long precedes the latter, which, in spite of claims to the contrary, Tolkien did not invent and which has its plural form recorded both as dwarfs and dwarves. The OED gives only dwarfs as the plural in its note on forms, and that is how we must spell it in other than Snow White and Middle Earth contexts, but I would guess that the pronunciation /dwɔːvz/ is not unknown elsewhere.

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Interesting theory, Barry! – Bjorn Dec 14 '11 at 18:13
So Tolkien did, as both he and common belief have it, invent dwarves? – TimLymington Dec 16 '11 at 10:25
@TimLymington: Apparently not. Under the definition ‘One of a supposed race of diminutive beings, who figure in Teutonic and esp. Scandinavian mythology and folk-lore’, the OED has four citations, all of them predating Tolkien, with the earliest from 1770. – Barrie England Dec 16 '11 at 11:21
My point is that (in all but one of the citations)they are dwarfs, and remained so up to both Disney and C S Lewis; it was the influence of JRRT that made them dwarves. Whatever you think of the origin, the distinction between 'dwarfs short people' and 'dwarves mythical creatures' is both noticeable and valuable. – TimLymington Dec 16 '11 at 11:32
Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing: "The form dwarves is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows) if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural [...] But in the Third Age something of their old character and power is still glimpsed." -LOTR, III, App.F – StoneyB Nov 25 '12 at 0:09

Two additions to the above:

1) Anglo-saxon may be related to old Dutch from Freisland. The Dutch form of the plural generally changes a final -f to -ven as in the Dutch word for 'dove': duif/duiven. This may be only a curiosity, however, because the Dutch 'v' sound is far closer to the Engish 'f', and Dutch spelling has been regularized a few times. However, I think it is the root of many English irregular forms.

2) There is a 'Note on the Text' in my Harper Collins (1991) 'The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien. The 'Note' is signed by Douglas A. Anderson (April 1993), and states that:

"Tolkien experienced what became for him a continual problem: printer's errors and compositor's mistakes, including well-intentioned 'corrections' of his sometimes idiosyncratic usage. These 'corrections' include the altering of dwarves to dwarfs, elvish to elfish,...and ('worst of all' to Tolkien) elven to elfin."

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English is definitely closely related to Dutch. However, that doesn't mean that Dutch is the "root" of English. – sumelic Jan 8 at 4:58

The correct spelling of dwarf in our world is dwarf and the plural is dwarfs.

In Middle-earth they are called dwarves - this was invented by Tolkien based on the original Old English spelling of dwarf and Anglo-Saxon grammar for plurals.

Tolkien was a professor of English and an expert on Old English and Anglo-Saxon; many of the names and words in his works are based on these languages.

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ps the distinction is important: dwarfs are the short people who insist on being called 'person of restricted growth', dwarves carry battle axes and cut you off at the knees when they aren't making magic rings – mgb Dec 14 '11 at 16:59
I don't believe the distinction is quite so clear-cut: Snow White's companions were magical beings rather than just vertically challenged, and the film is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. – TimLymington Dec 29 '11 at 11:58

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