addenda/s ...alumni

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Aug 23 13:51:34 UTC 2004

At 8:15 AM -0400 8/23/04, David Bowie wrote:
>From:    Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>
>:somebody wrote:
>:: I vote for 3), simple reanalysis:  the majority of English speakers,
>:: including those who have graduated from college, are under the
>:: impression that "alumni" is a singular, and has effectively (if, to
>:: some of us, regrettably) regrettably.  I certainly hear "X is an
>:: alumni of" as a singular all the time on sports talk radio, in
>:: contexts excluding any compound source ("alumni association").
>:: Perhaps expansion of "alum" is involved, but I tend to think it's
>:: more like the way "criteria" has become a singular, when neither (1)
>:: nor (2) are motivations.

[that was me]

>: I concur. Going back to my undergraduate days (1981-85), the word
>: "alumni" was the preferred singular form (for both sexes). "Alumnus"
>: was rare, being confined mainly to official school publications.
>: "Almuna" and "alumnae" were nowhere to be heard or seen. I would bet
>: the majority of my fellow students knew that "alumni" was plural and
>: male in Latin, but that did not affect the English usage of any but
>: a few pedants.

[that was Dave Wilton]

>I've heard it stated, by someone in the administration of an alumni
>association, that 'alumni' is used because it's (in some sense)
>gender-neutral--that is, 'alumnni' is used for a mixed group of men and
>women (whereas 'alumnus' can only be masculine and 'alumna' and 'alumnae'
>can only be feminine).
>Without getting into whether this is actually an accurate description of
>Latin (i have no idea--two years of high school Latin really doesn't help

it is accurate, modulo the use of -a for neuter plural, which isn't
too relevant here--then there's the issue of how these suffixes, esp.
-ae, are to be pronounced in English

>or the original reason for using that form, this analysis seems an
>interesting and possibly--probably, IMO--post hoc result of someone using
>their education to try to make sense of language.
Interesting, but as you say very likely a post-hoc rationalization.
In "I am an alumnus", the speaker is presumably certain of his own
gender, and ditto with "I am an alumna" of hers.  Of course "alumni"
is used for the plural when referring to mixed groups; this is the
standard neutralization-toward-the-unmarked, critique it though some
may.  But such a neutralization usually doesn't affect the singular.
I think it's much more likely that the -i, -us, -a, -ae suffixes are
opaque to most speakers of English.  Again, compare "criteria" or
other plurals reanalyzed as singulars, when there's no sex-reference


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