dialect in novels

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Mar 3 16:19:33 UTC 2001

 From Mark Mandel:

>Yes, "dwarves" is specialized.

One respected scholar's opinion. But I gave an example of "dwarves" in
astronomy in my other message, and there are many more. In my own (humble)
opinion, "dwarves" is acceptable generally as an alternative plural of
"dwarf". Does any standard (general, modern, American) reference contradict
me? [Probably there is one which does!]

>It was coined by J.R.R.Tolkien as an alternative to "dwarfs", the only
>plural in Modern English at the time ...

I don't think Tolkien claimed to have invented this plural. He only claimed
that it wasn't in his dictionaries. It still isn't in my OED, but it's in
my 1952 Merriam-Webster "New International (2nd Ed.)", which I think is
virtually the same as the 1934 edition (of which I can't find a copy ...
can anybody verify or refute this?). Tolkien first published "The Hobbit"
in 1937, I think. Tolkien was born in 1892, I think.

"Dwarves" is certainly a minority plural, and it may have been less common
before the Tolkien craze (1960's?). But it wasn't so uncommon that we can't
find multiple examples far too early for any influence from Tolkien.

1894:  Frederick York Powell (M.A., F.S.A., Christ Church, Oxford), in the
introduction to Oliver Elton's translation of "The First Nine Books of the
Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus", p. lxv: "_Dwarves._--These Saxo calls
Satyrs, and but rarely mentions." ... This is not in fantastic fiction, but
in a commentary on an ancient mythological history; and the spelling
apparently is not transcribed from the history (which is not in English)
nor from its translation (which uses "satyrs"), it apparently is Mr.
Powell's choice. Maybe the young J. R. R. Tolkien read this book! (Poul
Anderson recently novelized some Saxo Grammaticus material, I think.)

1868: E. R. Bulwer Lytton, "New Poems, by Owen Meredith", p. 290: "Four
black dwarves ..."

1856: Philip J. Bailey, "The Mystic and Other Poems", p.109: "Giants and
dwarves and Aethiop manikins ..."

>... "dwarves" and "dwarvish" are probably the forms most often used
>outside medical writing ...

Actually I wouldn't be inclined to use "dwarvish" as a substitute for
"dwarfish" in its usual senses. "Dwarvish" sounds to me like the name of
the dwarves' language in a fantasy novel. But if it is in a major
dictionary, I will accept it. "Dwarfs" is the clearly predominant plural in
astronomy, and (I think) in medicine, but the minority plural is not rare,
nor IMHO unacceptable.

[Incidentally, I find that the Stedman's medical dictionary shows as a
synonym for the condition known as geroderm[i]a osteodysplastica (or
Bamatter syndrome) ... "Walt Disney dwarfism"!]

-- Doug Wilson

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