Recently, I was having a discussion with one of my students and they asked me a really interesting question. “Why is the plural form of chief not chieves?” It’s a good question, right? I mean, many words in English change F into V and add -es to the end when they form the plural. So why not chief?
The answer interested them and it may interest you too! Like most weird irregularities in English, this one also has an interesting story behind it.
The reason why the plural form of chief is not chieves is because this word was borrowed into English between 1100AD and 1400AD from Old French. During this time, English experienced many changes in grammar and vocabulary. English loanwords do not change in similar ways to native English words.
Rules for Words Ending in F
While there are no longer any explicit rules in English for how you form the plural for these words, there are many words in English that change the final consonant from F to a V before adding the plural ending.
Below you’ll find a table listing examples of words that do change, words that don’t, and words that can take either form:
|Class 1: Always Change
|Class 2: Sometimes Change
|Class 3: Never Change
|dwarf (dwarfs, dwarves)
|half (halfs, halves)
|handkerchief (handkerchiefs, handkerchieves)
|hoof (hoofs, hooves)
|roof (roofs, rooves)
|scarf (scarfs, scarves)
The Difference Between Class 1 and Class 3 words
One significant difference you’ll notice between Class 1 and Class 3 words in the table above are that all of the Class 1 words are native English words (this means that they have been in the English vocabulary since the beginning when English split from its ancestor language), while many of the words in Class 3 have been borrowed into English from other languages.
More than 1000 years ago, English was very different than it is today. If you heard someone speaking Old English, you would not understand anything they said. You might even think they were speaking German!
This is because English is part of the same language family as German, Icelandic, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and others. This means that they share a common ancestor language. A long time ago all of these languages were the same language; with time, they split into different languages as people moved away from each other and settled far away lands.
If you know anything about German, you’ll know that German words change depending on their use in a sentence. For example, the small chart below shows the different forms for singular and plural of the German word for “house”:
The forms of German words in the singular and plural are often different both visually and in pronunciation. This is very similar to Old English which had similar differences with its words. Take the word “thief” for examples:
While the word looks similar in the singular and in the plural, it would not have sounded the same in Old English. (If you’re curious about that letter at the beginning, þ, check out this article I wrote talking about this cool little letter we lost in modern English.)
Old English Sound Rules
This brings us to the main reason for the difference between the two classes of words.
In Old English, there were rules for how a word is pronounced based on the other sounds that appear in the word (this is called phonotactics). For example, words in Old English that ended in the sounds /f/, /θ/, and /s/ experienced a change if they appeared between two voiced sounds (A sound is either voiced or voiceless. If you put your fingers on your throat and pronounce a sound, a voiceless sound has no vibration [like the /f/ in fish], but a voiced sound has vibration when pronounced. [like the /v/ in violin])
This means that in the word above, þēof, the final F would be pronounced the same as the F in fish when it is singular. However, when the word becomes plural, þēofas, the F would now sound like the V in violin. This is because the vowel sound /a/ is a voiced sound. If you say this sound with your fingertips on your throat, you will feel your voice box vibrating.
At that time in English, there was no letter for the V sound. F and V were represented by the same letter (f) and were considered the same sound. As English continued to grow and evolve this changed. F and V were separated into different sounds and given their own distinct letters.
However, the sound difference that existed in Old English for the letter F in a voiced environment is still with us today and is present in the many words that change their final F into a V when they become plural.
The Wild History of English
This might leave you asking, “So why didn’t it change when chief was borrowed into English?”
That’s a good question. The story behind why is hidden in English history. English has had a long and turbulent history. In 1066AD, England was conquered in the Norman Invasion when William the Conqueror came from Northern France and defeated the Anglo-Saxons (the original English speakers) at the battle of Hastings.
Afterwards, Old English was supplanted by Norman French as the most prestigious language of England. This lead to many changes in the English language. English began to lose many of its inflectional endings (the different endings that you see on the ends of words like in German or modern French) and began to heavily borrow many new words from French.
The word chief is one of the words that came into English during this period (known as the Middle English period).
Chief comes from the Old French word “chief” (the spelling is the same). If we trace chief back in time, we find it ultimately comes from the Latin words “caput” which means head.
By the time English borrowed chief into its vocabulary, the inflectional endings that lead to situations where F turned into V were gone. So, English speakers of that time created the plural using the regular plural ending we still use in English today, -s. Frequently, when new words are borrowed into English from foreign languages they are changed using the regular rules of English.
This is similar to the reason why the plural for the word “goose” is geese, but the plural for the word “moose” is not meese. If there is an irregular way to form a word in English, it isn’t applied to new words borrowed into the language. Speakers prefer to use regular word endings instead.
This is yet another example of fantastic English history hidden in plain sight. You will often find that behind almost every English irregularity there is an interesting story to be found. The story behind why the plural for chief is not chieves is one of them.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new and exciting about the English language. There’s much more to learn about this fascinating language and the words we use every single day.
If you enjoyed this article, I have written many more in my series The Hidden History of English you can check them out here.