Comments and a brace of vole


On language log, Sally Thomason asks what pattern governs the following list of mammals found on a farm in north-eastern Oregon:

bq. Mammal sightings: black bear, bobcat, cougar, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, chipmunk, ground squirrel, flying squirrel, snowshoe hare, mice, and vole

As she says, animals you hunt often take no plural -S, e.g. a brace of duck. But you wouldn’t talk about shooting a brace of vole (Wühlmäuse), although I imagine they’re difficult to hit.

bq. What’s interesting is the zero-plural-for-game-animals usage in this list, except for those mice — which aren’t game animals, of course, but then, neither are voles and chipmunks. That is, as is typical in discussions of game animals, all the terms are treated as if they were structurally parallel to deer, with plural identical to singular. Surely those animal sightings are multiple, not a single member of each species (well, except maybe for rarely-seen animals like cougars).

I think the idea is: if I’ve seen one, that’s sufficient. The lister is not interested in how many chipmunks he saw, just that he saw a chipmunk (is it the generic ‘the chipmunk’) at all. Still, I would be happier with ‘chipmunks’ and ‘voles’, but of course as it’s not a text about hunting, the bears should be plural too. Perhaps the writer was avoiding -s plurals for some reason or other and then the mice did not seem to break the pattern either, so voles and chipmunks remained singular too. Was it not Tom, of Tom and Jerry, who said, ‘I hate those meeses to pieces’? (In this connection, I have been translating something about Azerbaijan and see that you can shoot a lot of ducks there).

Anyway, I can’t post this as a comment on language log, because it allows no comments. An apologia for this has just been posted by Geoffrey Pullum. Actually, I would have thought it safe to allow comments provided you close posting of comments after a certain date. I get scarcely any comments since I closed posting on old posts. I still have a good six weeks open (this is a guess). There is one persistent poster, presumably automatic, who is constantly turned away by MT Blacklist. But that I could delete myself on the recent posts if I had to.

4 thoughts on “Comments and a brace of vole

  1. So that’s what Sally Thomason is up to these days (Hi Sally)! Since I’m still grateful for that excellent historical linguistics course at Pitt, I’ll try to solve the “mice” riddle. All the other animals in the list are seen predominantly in a wildlife context, hence the game-sighting plural formation. Mice, however, are much more commonly known in a domestic-pest context, where plurals area always used: “They’ve got mice, cockroaches, rats, and bedbugs.”

  2. Matt: Since I can’t comment on language log, I have no idea if Sally will even see this. Mark Liberman sometimes reads here.
    I think ‘mice’ was the only word Sally had no problem with!

  3. Sally says she wants to understand the assymetry. I think she’s less interested in what is prescriptively correct and more interested in the mechanism or rule that allows the inconsistency of the noun forms to sound ok to native speakers. To support my theory that the inconsistency has to do with familiarity in a domestic setting vs. wildlife, horse, cat, and dog in their singular forms would be equally unacceptable in such a list.

  4. Ah – you were too subtle for me when you wrote ‘the “mice” riddle’. My idea was that the bear etc. come (mistakenly) from hunting, the mice doesn’t break the pattern in an auditory way, and hence the vole.
    Another possibility is that the person was thinking of ‘the bear’ as a generic, but then of course the ‘mice’ does break the pattern.

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