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Words borrowed from French and ending in -eau originally had plural forms which appended an -x rather than an -s. For e.g., the plurals of tableau, beau, and plateau were tableaux, beaux, and plateaux respectively. While the use of plateaux and beaux has petered out in favour of plateaus and beaus, tableaux has not.

My questions:

  1. How are these -x plural forms pronounced?
  2. Is there any particular reason why tableaux is still the preferred plural form unlike plateaux, beaux, and portmanteaux?
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The first part is General Reference although that was a surprise to me. I'd never pronounce the x, I'd say it like French. –  Andrew Leach Oct 29 '12 at 7:43
    
@AndrewLeach Hence my question. –  coleopterist Oct 29 '12 at 12:13
    
Unlike Andrew, I would pronounce tableaux with a z sound at the end. And my English-speaking listeners should understand with no trouble. –  GEdgar Oct 29 '12 at 14:10
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@GEdgar Yes, but that's the same as pronouncing the anglicised tableaus, which is how most of the other candidates are spelt in English. The -x in the French spelling of tableaux is silent. –  coleopterist Oct 29 '12 at 16:25
1  
Both COCA and NGrams disagree with you as to beaux/beaus. –  StoneyB Oct 29 '12 at 16:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The OED attests as occurring in English texts the following irregular -x noun plurals:

  • aboideau > aboideaux
  • bandeau > bandeaux
  • bateau > bateaux
  • bayou > bayoux
  • beau > beaux
  • bijou > bijoux
  • bordereau > bordereaux
  • bureau > bureaux
  • château > châteaux
  • chou > choux
  • damoiseau > damoiseaux
  • fabliau > fabliaux
  • fricandeau > fricandeaux
  • jeu > jeux
  • lambeau > lambeaux
  • maquereau > maquereaux
  • morceau > morceaux
  • Pineau > Pineaux
  • plateau > plateaux
  • portmanteau > portmanteaux
  • procès verbal > procès verbaux
  • réseau > réseaux
  • rouleau > rouleaux
  • seau > seaux
  • tableau > tableaux
  • taureau > taureaux
  • torteau > torteaux
  • Tourangeau > Tourangeaux
  • trumeau > trumeaux
  • vœu > vœux

Most of those are far too rare to be considered anything other than unassimilated, but of those that aren’t, the Ngrams do not bear out the OP’s assertion that the -x forms have fallen by the wayside. In fact, only the very oldest ones have been superseded by -s forms.


Divination by Ngram

In the following Ngrams, the -x spelling is in blue and the -s spelling is in red. Notice how the blue nearly always dominates.


bateaux vs bateaus

*bateaux* vs *bateaus* ngram

beaux vs beaus

*beaux* vs *beaus* ngram

bijoux vs bijous

*bijoux* vs *bijous* ngram

bureaux vs bureaus

*bureaux* vs *bureaus* ngram

châteaux vs châteaus

*châteaux* vs *châteaus* ngram

jeux vs jeus

*jeux* vs *jeus* ngram

morceaux vs morceaus

*morceaux* vs *morceaus* ngram

plateaux vs plateaus

*plateaux* vs *plateaus* ngram

That one is interesting because it is one of the few that shows a distinct difference depending on whether the “British” or “American” corpus has been selected.

British plateaux vs plateaus British *plateaux* vs *plateaus* ngram

American plateaux vs plateaus American *plateaux* vs *plateaus* ngram

portmanteaux vs portmanteaus

*portmanteaux* vs *portmanteaus*

tableaux vs tableaus

*tableaux* vs *tableaus* ngram

vœux vs vœus

*vœux* vs *vœus* ngram

Summary

Only the French loanwords that have been around longest, and used the most, have lost their irregular inflection. Indeed, one of the very oldest, chapeau is even unattested in the chapeaux form.

On the other hand, words that require special treatment, like châteaux or nouveaux arrivés, can be expected to retain their imported forms longer. It may also be that people who know to use the import as an import, also know to import its irregularity: notice how vœux, voeux, and voues all occur, but never vœus. In the same way, there are no instances of châteaus, since if they know enough to hat the a, they surely know enough to -x the plural.

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Thank you for the detailed answer. I'm very surprised at the prevalence of plateaux! BTW, any idea if/why all these -x plurals are pronounced—going by the dictionary—as if they're -s plurals? I'd expected them to retain their French-ness. –  coleopterist Oct 31 '12 at 2:22
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@coleopterist English needs a -z sound for people to hear the plural. That -x isn’t truly silent in French, since it is sounded in liaison, like in aux amis. English doesn’t make that distinction, so it is always sounded. –  tchrist Oct 31 '12 at 2:35

In American English, none of those words are regularly pluralized in -x, not even tableaus. (Nor bureaus, nor chateaus.) Of course, I'd also say that none of those words are "regularly" pluralized to begin with. One doesn't often need to refer to multiple tableaus or bureaus in print.

In other -x neux, American crossworders may be familiar with EAUX ("Vichy waters?"), but that's definitely a French word, not an English one. Flambeaux is borderline. Beaux appears as an adjective in Beaux-Arts, but that's a borrowed French phrase.

Basically, the "Frenchier" the word, the more likely I'd be to consider it pluralized in -x. For example, I would consider ski chateaux to be humorously pretentious*, but chapeaus to be a solecism. (If you're going to go that far out of your way to use a French word in place of hats, you should spell the French word correctly.)

* FWIW, Google disagrees with my personal intuition about "ski chateaus"; neither phrase is common, but "ski chateaux" is more prevalent in that tiny sample.

In all of these cases, I would expect an American-English speaker to pronounce the final -x as /-z/, regardless of its French pronunciation. See also this Wikipedia talk page.

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2  
Different areas have different customs, but that's the first time I've even seen the word 'chateaus'; without authority, this may not be very helpful to OP. –  TimLymington Oct 30 '12 at 22:38
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You are quite incorrect about your assertion. Check the ngrams. Perhaps loltxting Merkins don’t use the -x form here, but the very strong evidence is that their actual books do indeed use the -x form. –  tchrist Oct 31 '12 at 1:12
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Thank you for the WP talk page link which is informative. Why do you believe that all AE speakers will (naturally?) pronounce the -x as /-z/? –  coleopterist Oct 31 '12 at 2:36
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@coleopterist Because that’s how we were taught to pronounce it. –  tchrist Oct 31 '12 at 9:42
    
@tchrist I admit my intuition about "chateaus" isn't authoritative. However, you'll see most of those results are about tourism in Francophone countries ("The Chateaux of Bordeaux" and so on), so it makes sense to use French spellings. Filtering to only those results which also include e.g. "billionaire" evens the results dramatically. In re the clearly non-French fixed phrase "ski chateau", my intuition is (statistically insignificantly) correct: Google Books reports one ski chateaux from 1972, two ski chateaus from 2003 and 2004, and one incorrect a ski chateaux from 2011. –  Quuxplusone Oct 31 '12 at 19:28

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