Overheard in the Linguistics Student Lounge—Chesterton Wilburfors Gilchrist, IV SpecGram Vol CXCIII, No 3 Contents Οὕτως-ism, a Linguistic-Ecclesiastical Schism—Bish Ap Rick and Mini Szter

Improving the Plural of Sheep

Trent Slater

English orthography is known throughout the world for its consistency and predictability. Few ever complain about the sound/spelling relationship in the world’s favourite tongue, nor has there ever been any call for spelling reform. Despite this considerable achievement, unique among the languages studied by Western linguistics, one thorn remains in the fly-free ointment. Sheep.

While fish has both the count plural fish1 and the typological plural fishes, sheep has only one plural: the disappointing and unclear sheep.2 This is obviously disappointing and unclear and must be resolved.

Meeting the Candidates

English has a consistent preference for -s postfix plurals, such as the word plurals. This is a direct descent from PIE in which there is no written evidence that such plurals were not used.4 Thus, -s plurals are primordial. The automatic plural of sheep is therefore sheeps. There is, however, something of a problem with this.

Such automated pluralisation is tempting but ultimately insufficient. And neither English orthography nor its phonology will accept anything but absolute clarity. We cannot have people thinking that we are talking about ships, cheeps or shapes. The most obvious route is to follow the plural of sheaf and voice the final consonant, giving us sheebs. Yet this is not perfect either. It sounds rather too much like the famous Egyptian city of Thebes. We cannot have sheep relating themselves to a great empire. Just look at how cats reacted to being worshipped!

Obviously, we need a mid-word vowel change, like our Germanic neighbours and as seen in men and women or even geese. Since sheep already has a strong /i/ vowel, it may need to be replaced with another similar strong sound.

The Correct Plural

This leaves us with a quandary. The available mid-word candidates are as unhelpful as a corpus of actual speech and yet the status quo is not rocking all over the world. After consulting experts with years of experience of pluralisation, one clear candidate emerged. As of the moment you read this, the correct plural of sheep is sheepsies.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some sheepsies to herd.

1 I shall proceed to ignore this case as it doesn’t fit my theory. This is established protocol for outliers.

2 Contra3 Reviewer 2, who argued that, if sheep are unclear, I need new spectacles, this is not an ophthalmological point but a morphological one.

3 See the informative article in this journal on academic disagreement words.

4 Some uncharitable reviewers have challenged this assertion. However, when challenged to find written evidence of PIE to prove their point, they relented. I rest my declension.

Overheard in the Linguistics Student LoungeChesterton Wilburfors Gilchrist, IV
Οὕτως-ism, a Linguistic-Ecclesiastical SchismBish Ap Rick and Mini Szter
SpecGram Vol CXCIII, No 3 Contents