“Sapiens” Is Not A Plural

We interrupt this broadcast to explain something to everybody who has ever used the expression “a homo sapien”. Sapiens is not a plural. It is an adjective ending in an S, just like erectus, afarensis and neanderthalensis. (It means “wise”.) You would never say “a homo erectu”, right? Don’t try to learn Latin from Del tha Funkee Homosapien.


  1. #1 Anon
    September 9, 2008

    Can I put in a plug for “biceps” too, while you’re on the subject?

  2. #2 Martin R
    September 9, 2008

    Yes, please do.

    And “forceps”.

  3. #3 Pär
    September 9, 2008

    While on the subject, I’ve also heard the Swedish equivalents of “one centimete” and “one contain”.

  4. #4 Pär
    September 9, 2008

    Oh, and note that “dice” is plural. It’s one die.

  5. #5 Martin R
    September 9, 2008

    So that’s what Frank Black means on the first Pixies album when he, quoting bassist Kim Deal, says “You fuckin’ die”.

  6. #6 chris y
    September 9, 2008

    Eventually these misconceptions get accepted through general use, which is one of several reasons why we no longer speak Latin/Old North Germanic. I don’t think you can hold the line on datum/data any more, and I suspect that die/dice will go the same way in my lifetime. Homo sapiens, though, is a formal term which can’t be varied without screwing up all the rules of taxonomy. So no way.

  7. #7 speedwell
    September 9, 2008

    Homo sapiens, though, is a formal term which can’t be varied without screwing up all the rules of taxonomy.”

    You say that almost as though the great march of language change cares about your trumpery little rules, little human. 🙂

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?
    September 9, 2008

    You say that almost as though the great march of language change cares about your trumpery little rules, little human. 🙂

    You have it backwards. Nomenclature doesn’t care about language.

  9. #9 speedwell
    September 9, 2008

    I was kidding, David, but I can see where you might have got confused. Sorry about that.

  10. #10 Jonathan Lubin
    September 9, 2008

    This is an example of “back-formation”, a process that has been going on since time immemorial. Not that that means that we should encourage it! It explains why, in English, it’s a cherry rather than a cherrise and a pea rather than a pease, for instance. My own disfavorite example these days is “kudo”.

  11. #11 DianaGainer
    September 9, 2008

    I did a study of small children acquiring English as their 1st language. You would really get a kick out of all the wondrous inventions they come up with! One little girl came up to me (age 4) to ask, “What when we are not scared?” I answered, “Brave.” She then announced, “I am not scared of things any more. I am brave of them.” Oy!
    How about the comedian who calls people up on the phone and tells them their son has been tested and discovered to be a HOMO (Loud voice)…sapiens (quiet voice). They go to pieces (on the air) and insist, “Oh no he’s not! He likes girls, he plays football…” (thinking he meant homosexual).
    So, now that we have that straight, how are you at Greek? If the fellow who sails in a “naus” is a “nautes”, then is the fellow who rows with a “plate” a “plates” ? Sorry, I don’t have a Greek font, but those are long “e”s, not the ones that look like a backward “3”.

  12. #12 Martin R
    September 9, 2008

    My Greek is faeces, but I make a good feta salad.

  13. #13 Janne
    September 9, 2008

    “O look, a Homo Erectu! And the remains of his Canis Lupu still faithfully guarding his master.” Sounds good; should start using this form more.

  14. #14 Martin R
    September 10, 2008

    Now, now, Janne — “canis” ends with an S and is thus clearly a plural. Therefore you have to inflect the adjective, so it’s “one cani lupu, “two canis lupi”. (-;

  15. #15 Mattias
    September 10, 2008

    “Erectu” would be supine ablative but wouldn’t match with “homo”, of course.

    / Mattias

  16. #16 daveG
    September 10, 2008

    I once heard some – oviously who had heard about the data are – data is controversy say – “these datas is”

    The brain is a wonderful thing…


  17. #17 kontakt
    September 10, 2008

    But “one centimete” and “one contain” isn’t Swedish, is it?

  18. #18 Felicia Gilljam
    September 11, 2008

    Kontakt, I think Pär meant that he’s heard “en centimet”, “en contain”. Not that it makes much of a difference.

    Personally I always had a bit of trouble with the swedish word “racket”. I want it to be “rack”…

  19. #19 Felicia Gilljam
    September 11, 2008

    By the way, Martin, while you’re at it – why not inform people that only the genus is capitalised, whereas the species epithet is never capitalised? Ok so it’s a minor quibble but given that nomenclature and naming conventions are so easy to look up I really don’t get why even science journalists get this one wrong… /flail

  20. #20 DDeden
    September 11, 2008

    “Oh, and note that “dice” is plural. It’s one die.”
    What about ‘two die four’?

    Now this is a much more sapient pattern:
    louse – lice, mouse – mice, douse – dice

  21. #21 Janne
    September 11, 2008

    Felicia, I’ve heard “rack” used in southern Sweden: “tog du med ditt rack?”, with “racket” as the definitive(?) form: “det här racket är uruselt”.

  22. #22 Bill Poser
    September 13, 2008

    If we get really fussy, sapiens is NOT an adjective ending in s. The s is actually the nominative singular case ending. Sapiens really ends in t, but the t is deleted preceding the s. Compare the nominative singular sapiens with the genitive singular sapient-is, the accusative singular sapient-em, the nominative plural sapient-es, etc. Regrettably, few English speakers use the full set of Latin case forms. But one could: “Joe is a homo sapiens.” but “Behind me, I glimpsed a hominem sapientem.”

  23. #23 Martin R
    September 13, 2008

    Now, if somebody would just explain why we need to distinguish between hominiDs and hominiNs.

  24. #24 Bill Poser
    September 13, 2008

    One of my favorite examples of a mis-analysis is what happened to the word for “king” in Coptic, which I discussed in this Language Log post.

  25. #25 Martin R
    September 14, 2008

    Cool! In Swedish, we’ve borrowed the plurals “caps, cakes, rails” and made them into singulars, en keps, ett kex, en räls.

  26. #26 DianaGainer
    September 14, 2008

    Oh, hey, I actually know the difference between hominiDs and hominiNs. The first ones, hominDs, are all our ancestors, you see. That term arose when all the paleoarcheologists thought our human family tree was like the River Nile, just running straight back, with no branches. Later, they discovered all those Australopithecus this, that, and the other, and realized they couldn’t all be our direct ancestors. So they decided they needed a term for human-like-possible-ancestors-but-not-necessarily. That’s where the hominiNs came in. Personally, I think we could have simply redefined the original word and saved ourselves the bother, but they didn’t ask me. They never do! Very narrow-minded of them, isn’t it? (By the by, I have a degree in this area).

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