An Irishman's Diary

Wed, Jul 24, 2002, 01:00

By Jove, we must be the toast of Brussels. For we were told to have a non-plural plural for euro and cent, and we promptly obliged, even though it is idiocy, as any attempt to regulate language must be.

But apparently it makes politically correct eurosense to have a meaningless plural, if only because most of the plurals of the old currencies of euroland did not exist - as in deutschmark - or were there but remained silent, as in francs. And obedient to that mad compulsion to impose conformity, our Belgian lingocracy has prescribed one rule across euroland.

So: we were told not to use a plural for euro, and obediently we did as instructed, opting for the new EU version of plurality, the pleural: one euro, two euro, one cent, two cent. It sounds ugly, it is ugly, it will always be ugly: but the pleural is proof of our abject euro-compliance, evidence that we are thoroughly good Europeans. To be sure, we will do nothing to defend our eurochums if they are attacked, and we even intend to pass a constitutional referendum so that our studied, pious unfriendship will then be graven in legal stone; but at least we will pronounce our pleurals as we are told to.

Self-righteous simper

Never mind that we have allowed the ludicrous situation wherein the same singular - cent - takes a conventional plural if the currency is foreign, namely Australian, American, Singaporean, et alia, but when it is our own, we then indulge in the preposterous singular of the pleural. You can almost hear the self-righteous simper when someone engaging in pleurisy on RTÉ utters the idiocy, six euro and five cent. When discussing the respective values of the US cent and the euro cent, do they say that five US cents is worth four euro cent, or whatever? Or do they realise that the difference simply makes no sense, or as we say in euroland, it makes no cent?

Inevitably, someone will defend the anomalistic plurals by reference to the chaos of English plurals - but that is the nature of the language. What is the plural of news? Of innings? Of chess? Of soccer? Of porridge? Of catgut? What does the English language have against fish that it does not, outside biblical usage anyway, generally permit us to say fishes, or any plural of so many gilled species; no salmons, no cods, no trouts, no hakes, no halibuts. But it does allow prawns and shrimps and eels and lobsters: if they have legs, or slither, then - it seems - they're allowed to have conventional plurals.

There are rabbits and cows and crows and rooks, but no sheeps or deers or grouses. Go down to the Four Courts, and you can see lawyers and barristers, but you can't see counsels. There are only fruit, not fruits, in your fruit-bowl, but the plural term fruits remain as a metaphor, as in the fruits of his labours.

Bizarre hybrids

No plural either for linen or silverware or china: but there are plurals for sheet and cup and things made of cotton, though not of cotton itself. And there are those strange plurals which have become singular - like innings and smallpox and scissors, which either require bizarre hybrids to desingularise, such as inningses, or they remain in stubborn and uncontrite plurality.

The singular of pea was once pease, the word pea not then existing. But because pease never arrived on the plate singularly - unless, that is, you were very poor indeed - the word was assumed to be a plural form: look, all these pease, and the word pea was back-formed to create a bogus singular which has over time become authentic.

Sometimes, the singular is larger than the plural: grass means an uncountable plenitude of individual plants, but grasses means just a countable few. An animal is covered in a vast volume of hair; but individually, they are hairs. Straw is a large mass you give to animals; straws are particular things you stick in your hair. Hay, meanwhile, is simply hay. No hays.

That's the way English has developed - chaotically, unpredictably. We have antique plurals, like child, children; man, men; ox, oxen; tooth, teeth. On occasion, we strangely pluralise the adjective or the adjectival phrases, rather than the noun, as in lord lieutenants, attorney generals, court martials, poet laureates and son-in-laws; but for that awesome plurality, mothers-in-law, we stick to the letter of the grammatical law. We never say mother-in-laws, lest we offend them, and are beaten to death.

Outlaw language

And though that word death has a plural, breath really hasn't, yet heath has, and not because somebody in "L'Académie Anglaise" decided it should be so, but because the inchoately corporate will of those who speak English chose it that way. English is an ungoverned and ungovernable outlaw language: and that is why the verbal euroedicts on how we should pronounce our plurals violate the ancient habits (which has a plural when dealing with mannerisms, but no plural when dealing with clothes) and the culture of chaos (which has neither singular nor plural) which make English what it is.

Only the obsessive, diseased mind-sets that exist in Brussels could prescribe the way we should utter our monetary pleurals. Equally, only an obsessive desire to conform with higher authority could cause so many Irish broadcasters - often with an odiously ostentatious eurosanctimony - to slavishly follow these arbitrary and slightly creepy pleural diktats. As Jane Austen so wisely said: it's all a matter of Cent and Centibility.