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When I first looked this word up on Dictionary.com, I found entries not for it, but instead stigma. I was baffled. Words in the English language usually follow the -(e)s and -us-to--i pluralization patterns, but why not stigmata? Why can't this word be its own or an alternative singular? I know there are other plurals in English that follow neither pattern which people tend to mistake for singulars, such as taxa (for taxon) and strata (for stratum).

  • Of related interest: Plant Name Pluralisation – choster Jun 8 '20 at 14:10
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    because 'stigma' it's Greek. (whereas 'stratum'/'strata' is Latin). In order to know the plurals of borrowed words, you need to know which language they came from. Similarly 'crisis/'crises' is a Greek plural. – smci Jun 8 '20 at 22:38
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Words in the English language usually follow the -(e)s and -us-to--i pluralization patterns, but why not stigmata? Why can't this word be its own or an alternative singular?

To be sure, the regular plural stigmas also exists, and Merriam-Webster indicates that that's the more common plural for the now-primary metaphorical sense "a mark of shame or discredit".

But as for why stigmata exists . . . stigma comes from Ancient Greek στίγμα (stígma), whose corresponding plural form is στίγματα (stígmata). Likewise for various other nouns in -ma, including schema (with plural forms schemata and schemas) and stoma (with plural forms stomata and stomas). (In Ancient Greek this was a very productive pattern; see Wiktionary's category for Ancient Greek words with the suffix -μα. Relatively few of those words have been borrowed into English, or at least their plurals haven't, so English doesn't have too many plurals in -mata; but the epenthetic -t- pattern is often reflected in related words: stigma and astigmatism, grammar and grammatical, asthma and asthmatic, symptom and symptomatic, coma and comatose, etc.)

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    Not sure what you are complaining about. The article clearly states that stigmata is the original plural of stigma, bus the English version stimgas is the more commonly used. – user 66974 Jun 7 '20 at 9:10
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    @user121863: This answer is not "complaining" about anything. Is your comment here meant as a reply to my comment on the other answer? If so, then you should have posted it there rather than here, so other people can follow the conversation. (But to answer your implied question: the Grammarist article treats stigmata as singular ("a stigmata"), and claims that it's "almost never" used as a plural anymore. These are egregious errors IMHO. You're right that the article also says some not-incorrect things, but that's a hardly a defense!) – ruakh Jun 7 '20 at 16:36
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    Another example of a word with Greek origin ending in -ma is "lemma" (an auxilliary or preliminary theorem). The Greek plural of lemma is definitely lemmata. However, I'm pretty sure that most present-day English-speaking mathematicians use lemmas as the plural form of lemma. – Mico Jun 8 '20 at 15:06
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    @Mico: Good example! I believe the lemmata plural is standard in the context of a dictionary, glossary, etc. (where it means the word being defined/glossed/etc.). – ruakh Jun 8 '20 at 18:46
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    @Mico I've seen lemmata used by mathematicians. – Hearth Jun 8 '20 at 23:07
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As said in the other answers, this is because the noun is Greek, not Latin. There are many such nouns in Greek, mostly ending in the suffix -ma (which frequently forms result nouns) although most such plurals don't survive into English

The following is diving into the historical linguistics of this far more than is probably necessary, but here we go:

The question then, is why does the Greek noun form its plural this way? The suffix -ma (and other words with the same plurals in -ata) form a special subclass of neuter third declension nouns. The third declension consists of consonant stems, meaning that, etymologically, the stem of these nouns ends in a consonant. In this instance, that consonant is -t. As the nominative (subject), accusative (object), and vocative (talking to) singular ending for neuter third declension nouns is -Ø (i.e. there is no ending, the bare stem is used) and t cannot occur at the end of a word in Greek, it is lost

This results in the paradigm we see where we have a word that in most singular forms ends in a vowel, but whenever it takes a suffix, a -t appears after that vowel

This doesn't quite explain it though. We only see nouns like this with singular -a vs plural -ata, not with any other vowel e.g. -e vs -eta, why is that? And the normal declension for nouns with stems ending in -t has -s in the singular rather than dropping it entirely so what's up there?

Now, third declension -nt stems solve the last of these problems, as the masculine vocative singular (which in the third declension, always matches the neuter nominative, vocative, and accusative singular) ends in -n without the t present in all the other forms

On its own, this doesn't seem to help us because there's no sign of an n in the -a/-ata words until we take a step further back in time, before Ancient Greek, to Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This is the reconstructed ancestor of most of the languages of Europe, as well as much of South and Southwest Asia, including Greek, Latin, English, Hindi, Farsi, Russian, and many others. In some contexts, in PIE, certain consonants could behave like a vowel and form their own syllable (e.g. *m̥ is an m sound, but without any accompanying vowel, like you're humming), and one of these consonants that could be syllabic like this was n. Through careful comparison between related words in various Indo-European languages, we can see that in Greek, *n̥ regularly becomes a (this is why Greek has the prefix a- where most other Indo-European languages have forms with the n like in-, un- etc)

So, these -at stems, turn out to be a close sister to the -nt systems, and come from PIE -n̥t stems. We can also see that the Greek deverbal suffix -ma comes from a PIE form like -mn̥t, which also gives us the Latin deverbal suffix -mentum (also neuter) which in turn gives us (via French) English -ment

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    There are other singular forms missing stem-final t, like μέλι, μέλιτος. The final -s found in other third declension words is a nominative suffix that shows up on non-neuter nouns. I don't know if it's accurate, but Wiktionary seems to imply that Greek nominative forms in -ma might just be from PIE -mn̥ (cognate to Latin -men) rather than the extended form -mn̥t – herisson Jun 8 '20 at 14:23
  • wiktionary does say that, but it being from -mn̥ fails to explain any part of the declension other than the nominative, whereas -mn̥t explains the whole declension. The final -s is not just from the masculine nominative though, as it shows up in neuter t-stems e.g. κέρᾰς κέρᾱτος. There are a few other oddities like μέλι μέλιτος (although this word appears to be a borrowing either into PIE itself or shortly after PIE's dispersal as it is absent in all "Eastern" branches so its behaviour being odd is not surprising), but these are extremely few in number – Tristan Jun 8 '20 at 15:27
  • wikipedia gives the -n̥t as the original ending of the -at stems, but this is uncited en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_nouns#Stems_in_at – Tristan Jun 8 '20 at 15:27
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Actually the plural form is stigmas, stigmata (the plural form in Greek) has survived with a different usage.

Stigmata: Etymology From Ancient Greek στίγμα (stígma, “brand”). Nominative plural: στίγματα (stígmata).

Stigma is a common word, but the correct rendering of the plural form of stigma can be confusing. We will examine the definition of the words stigma, stigmas and stigmata, where these words came from, the proper plural form and some examples of these words used in sentences,

A stigma is a shameful fact, characteristic or action that is attached to a certain person, circumstance or institution. A stigma causes disgrace. In medicine, stigma refers to a visible sign of a disease. The word stigma is derived from the Latin and Greek word stigma which means a mark made by a pointed instrument. Stigmas is the most common plural form of the word stigma, which is an Anglicized version of pluralization applied to a Latin word.

A stigmata is a repetition of the supposed crucifixtion wounds of Jesus Christ on saints and other Christian mystics, derived from the Latin and Greek word stigma. The term first appears in the 1600s. Stigmata is the correct Latin plural form for the word stigma, but the word is almost never used in this manner anymore. Someone who suffers from the appearance of the stigmata is called a stigmatist.

(Grammarist)

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    I'm not familiar with Grammarist, but if this article is representative, then it's a bad resource and you should stop referencing it. "Stigmata" is usually treated as plural (with singular "stigma"), as any dictionary will confirm; you will sometimes see "a stigmata", in the same way that you'll sometimes see "a bacteria" and "a criteria", but this is not as common as the standard usage, and a page that suggests otherwise is not worth the electrons it was transmitted with. – ruakh Jun 7 '20 at 8:12
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    +1 this looks like an errant resource - it even says Stigmata is the correct Latin plural form, when it clearly would be Stigmae if truly declined in Latin. – obscurans Jun 7 '20 at 9:30
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    @obscurans - looks like a typo. It should be Greek not Latin. – user 66974 Jun 7 '20 at 9:40
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    @obscurans: Latin borrowed the plural from Greek (see en.wiktionary.org/wiki/stigma#Latin), so while I agree that the article's phrasing is very misleading, I think it's technically correct. – ruakh Jun 7 '20 at 17:03
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    I'd have thought that stigmata are repetitions of the wounds, rather than a stigmata is.... – Michael Hardy Jun 7 '20 at 19:38
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In English, there are three ways to make a plural, and all nouns have their own way:

  • regular, the one that's used 99.9% of the time: adding -(e)s (cat - cats, bus - buses);
  • irregular, used for only 8 (I think) nouns in the whole English vocabulary (man - men, child - children);
  • borrowed - this is the one that is used with words such as stigmata.

So, how borrowed plurals work is that some nouns that were borrowed to English from Latin or Ancient Greek, are borrowed together with their plurals, so their plural forms are used as they were in their original language. In Ancient Greek, plural for "stigma" was "stigmata" - so, English speakers will use this plural form.

This can be confusing for non-native English speakers, because this can raise a lot of questions - why aren't other languages are granted luxury of taking plural forms with them (how about using "Eisberge" instead of "icebergs")? Why are some words still used with regular plural forms (nobody seems to use "fora" instead of "forums", or "penii" instead of "penises")? Why only take a plural form, when Latin also had 6 grammatical cases for nouns?

Well, this is just how English works on practice.

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    If your "irregular" category includes men, then it must surely include more than eight nouns, because there are more than eight compounds ending in -men (firemen, policemen, mailmen, workmen, chairmen, freshmen, aldermen, selectmen, congressmen, fishermen, woodsmen, huntsmen, . . .). I'm also not sure it's possible to draw a bright line between "borrowed" and "irregular" plurals; how would you classify a form like octopi, which was formed in English by (arguably mistaken) analogy with words like alumni and foci? – ruakh Jun 9 '20 at 7:12
  • @ruakh both true! I will update my answer soon. – r5ha Jun 9 '20 at 10:11
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    it's way more complicated than a simple three way distinction as each category has many subcategories (and "irregular" includes vastly more than 8 nouns, even excluding compounds). Excluding complications of the first category (e.g. roof rooves, and penny pence) there are four different types of irregular plurals: weak nouns (e.g. ox oxen) which used to form a second regular class, invariants (e.g. sheep sheep), suppletive nouns (e.g. person people), and umlaut nouns (e.g. man men) of which there are far more than 8 examples on their own – Tristan Jun 9 '20 at 16:49
  • @Tristan: Even your "four different types of irregular plurals" breakdown has difficulty with examples like children (where the Middle English plural childer eventually picked up a stray -en by analogy with e.g. brethren) and octopi (which I mentioned above). That's the thing with irregular plurals: they're irregular, and can't always be broken down so neatly into regular categories. – ruakh Jun 10 '20 at 7:15
  • @ruakh yup, the children double plural is tricky. Octopi definitely fits in the borrowed category, it's just moved to a different subcategory within that (similar to various strong verbs that changed subclass). My point was mostly that weak nouns, invariants, and umlaut nouns do form well defined categories of "irregular" nouns that have their own rules and so, to an extent, should not be considered truly irregular, but just additional noun paradigms (in the same way the 3rd, 4th, and 5th declensions in Latin aren't irregular just for not being one of the more common 1st or 2nd) – Tristan Jun 10 '20 at 9:08

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