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One Fish, Two Fish
Monday, June 4, 2007   9:56 AM

A few weeks ago I called my brother, an avid fisherman, to ask about fish plurals. For his sake, it was probably good that he didn't have time to talk.

(I always use the phrase "avid fisherman" to describe my brother. A few years ago I was mildly obsessed with finding simple descriptive phrases for everyone I knew: it's nice to have a two-second personality summary on hand when you're telling a story.)

My curiosity had been piqued by a show on piranhas, but being from Minnesota, I kept thinking about our native fish.

First, a note on plurals. As Arnold Zwicky points out, English has singular count nouns (an egg), singular mass nouns (the bread, the rice), and plural count nouns (the eggs).

Fish lexemes have access to all of these forms, and if you're referring to a fish type within the scientific classification system there is an additional plural (technically, it's probably a different lexeme) that is apparently always formed by adding -s or -es. In my dialect, this is the only time you'll hear basses.

(Other people will have different versions of these forms, due to their crazy correctness conditions. For example, Californian fisherman Jed Welsch writes in the L.A. Press Telegram: "Those aboard The Big Game caught eight yellowtails and 100 calico basses.")

Here are the rules for Minnesotan fish: the singular count and mass forms of fish lexemes are always identical: I caught a bluegill, would you like some sunny, let's go fishing for crappie, etc. Likewise, most of the plurals of Minnesotan fish are straightforward: add an -s or -es.

The American Fisheries Society styleguide matches my choices on this topic. Except for minnow. We say minnows. But the AFS styleguide notwithstanding, I don't know who wouldn't.

What's really interesting is that, even where we use the uninflected version of the original fish name, Minnesotans' plural formation tends towards the standard method, to the point of creating new words. The lexeme pike is uninflected in the plural, so we took Northern pike and made northerns. Muskellunge was also uninflected, but we call them muskies. In my experience both of the standard pluralization forms are highly preferred.

C.f. jumbos for jumbo perch, rainbows for rainbow trout, and smallmouths and largemouths for the two major sport varieties of bass. Only carp seems to have no access to a standard plural form, but as it's generally considered neither a sport fish nor bait, carp occurs at a much lower frequency than these others.

I'm also amused by the widespread usage of wally/wallys (or walleys/walleys) for walleye/walleyes. This plural is pretty flexible: I think most of us would have no problem — certainly no WTF problem — with I caught three walleye. I think I say walleyes, but many Minnesotans don't inflect the plural unless they're using the jocular version of the name.

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