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alumni

Last month Linguist Laura wrote a blog post congratulating the students who were graduating from her program(me). She discusses graduate, then moves on to alumni, excerpted below. I've highlighting the bit that was news to me.
My undergraduate alma mater
Go Minutemen! Go Minutewomen!
When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know[n] that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, [...]

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.
I am not sure who the we is here. Laura's department? English speakers? It seems to me it's British English speakers, as in my experience Americans haven't adopted the plural as a singular.

First, Americans use the gendered singulars. I looked for an alumn* of in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) in order to get only singular instances:

(I checked the one that says alumni* and it's by a graduate of The Open University [UK] who uses the word maths, so I have mentally flipped it into the GB column.)

In AmE singular alumni amounts to about 9% of the total, but in BrE it's about 22% (and in Canadian English, it's 35%). Note the lack of alumna in BrE.

When Americans want to avoid the gendered Latin terms, we often hack off the Latin suffix. I am an alum of the University of Massachusetts. I am friends with many of my fellow alums.

The word looks odd and is hard to pronounce if you don't know that it's a clipped form. It is not a homophone with the astringent chemical alum. The chemical is A-lum, the graduate is a-LUM, following the stress pattern of the suffixed form. I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better. (There are 6 instances of alumn in GloWBE, 5 American and one that is classifed as GB, but when you look it's from an organi{s/z}ation in New York. None of these is in the phrase an alumn of, so they aren't included the numbers below.)

An alum of gets 10 hits in the US and 2 in GB (all legitimate; plus one Canadian hit, for those keeping track). If we add these to the numbers in the chart above, we get the following proportions:

a ___ of AmE BrE
gendered singular alumna/us 81% 75%
plural-form singular
alumni
8% 21%
clipped singular
alum
11% 4%
total number 88 52


Now, if you worked at a college/university in the US, I am quite sure that you would hear alum much more than you'd hear singular alumni. I had a quick look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which showed twice as many an alum of as an alumni of (though the numbers were small--21 in total).

So, a few points of unseemly defensiveness after all this:
  • Americans are able to and do use the Latin gendered suffixes. I mention this because there seems to be some belief that the British know Latin better than Americans do.  One of the interviewees in Jones's book on English expats in the US says she felt "she got to win a lot of arguments" because Americans assume “I [have] this great level of culture [and speak] and read fluent Latin” though of course she didn't. Similarly, I've had it said to me that Americans make barbarous "false" Latin words because we aren't close enough to the language. An British commentator on early American accents wrote that "Americans do not, however, speak or pronounce English according to our standard; [...] probably from a want of any intimate knowledge of Greek or Latin." I can't see much evidence for thinking the contemporary British folk have some access to Latin that contemporary Americans don't. Latin comes and goes in both American and British schools. Yes, the fancy public (i.e. private) schools of Britain do tend to offer Latin, but so did my run-of-the-mill American high school. Very few schools anywhere require it (or even offer it) any more--though apparently it's popular with American home-schoolers.
  • If you see Latin plurals masquerading as singulars, it's not a case of "American political correctness" coming over and "ruining" the language. The British are very capable of being sensitive to gender discrimination and changing the language themselves.  
The other thing to notice is that Americans use these words more. In fact, Americans have a great head start on using them. This is not necessarily a bragging point. The reason Americans needed these words earlier is that American universities have long depended on their graduates' generosity.

That was not an issue for British universities, which until recently were funded mainly through government grants. While I've lived in the UK, I've seen tuition fees go from 0 to over £9000 per year. And it was only once the government stopped directly funding university teaching that universities needed to step up relations with their graduates in the hope of getting donations and bequests. That's when my university got an Alumni Relations Office, something any American university would have had decades earlier.

Americans, I would say, have a keener sense of alumnihood. They have stickers identifying their alma mater in the back windows of their cars. The phrase alma mater is about four times more common in AmE than BrE (in GloWBE). They go to homecoming. They follow their institution's sports teams for the rest of their lives. (The need to keep alumni involved is a big reason for American universities having so much sporty activity.) They might even know their college's/university's song. That's in general, of course. I can't say I do any of those things. But I know many more Americans than Britons who do. 


This post first appeared on Separated By A Common Language, please read the originial post: here

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