And other language fossils such as “How dare you,” “Perish the thought,” and pronouncing the “-ed” at the end of “wicked.”
I read an interesting post recently, on a blog called Arrant Pedantry. In this post, titled “No Dice,” Jonathon Owen traced the history of the English word “dice,” and how, in his words, it “slipped through the cracks of language change.” Today, we’re going to talk about “dice” and other examples of language that got left behind.
The Plural of “Die” Is “Dice,” Not “Dies” or “Douse”
“Dice” is the plural form of the singular noun “die,” a fact that I didn’t realize until I was a teenager. Before then, I just thought the word was a noun like “sheep,” with the same form for both singular and plural. But even if you know that “dice” is the plural of “die,” isn’t it strange it’s not just “dies,” with a Z sound at the end? After all, the plural of the plural of “pie” is “pies” and not “pice,” and the plural of “fly” is “flies” and not “flice.” Even as an irregular plural, “dice” is weird. The singular forms of “mice” and “lice” are “mouse” and “louse,” but the singular of “dice” is not “douse.”
In his blog post, Owen explained that originally, the plural of “die” was spelled D-I-E-S. However, at that time, all plurals that ended in “-s” were actually pronounced with an S sound at the end, not with a Z sound. Then, probably sometime in the 1500s, a sound change occurred, so that for most nouns these plural endings came to be pronounced with a Z sound. After this sound change, the plural of “die” would have been pronounced with a Z sound at the end. But what we actually see around this time is that the spelling changes from D-I-E-S to D-I-C-E. In other words, speakers hung on to that final S sound, and changed the spelling to make it clear. “Dice” got left behind.
“Dice” as a Non-Count Noun
Why did it get left behind? Owen suggests that people were not thinkingof “dice” as a plural; they were thinking of it as a non-count noun, like “mud” or “Jell-O.” Even though you can count dice, and know whether you’re rolling two, three, or six of them, speakers considered “dice” a non-count noun, kind of like “furniture” and “homework” are today, even though you can count pieces of furniture and homework assignments.