Friday, July 23, 2010

The Curious and Quibbling History of "Syllabus" (part 1)

Part the First, In which our heroine renounces her intellectual complacency and embarks upon The Quest.

What is the proper plural of the word "syllabus"? You can google it. People do worry about this. They worry, that is, unless they are just sure that they know the correct answer. Up until this morning, I thought I knew the correct answer. But now, I don't have an answer. I have a story.

It's the story of the word "syllabus" and it sweeps several languages and centuries. But it is also the story of the very human failings and humane instincts of philologists. And, it's a quirky little tale of a tortuous etymology. So I've decided to share.

There are three basic camps on the issue of the plural of "syllabus":

1) The "English" camp. The logic is as follows: It's a word in English. English plurals end in "-s" or "-es". So the plural is "syllabuses."

2) The "Latin" camp: It's a word from Latin because it ends in -us. Their plurals end in -i. So the plural should be "syllabi". [NB: There is a much more rigorous and well-informed version of this position, as we shall see. But there are a number of people who do not know Latin who hold this view.]

3) The "Philologist" camp: The word has come into English from Latin. But it's not a 2nd declension noun in -us; it's a 4th declension noun in -us. Therefore the plural is not -i, but -ūs. Hence, "syllabūs". [NB: There are good reasons for this view as well, but there is also a subtext directed against the Latin camp which goes something like this: "Ha! You think you know Latin because you can make jokes like "semper ubi sub ubi"? Bet you didn't even know there *was* a fourth declension, did you?]

In the final analysis, there are reasons for all three positions that can be either emblematic of rigorous scholarly analysis or typical of an unthinking reactivity. For my part, I was taught by the Philologist camp, but to my chagrin I had accepted the doctrine of "syllabūs" without questioning or investigation. I suppose my reasons were both naive and reactive; I can't pretend I'm not annoyed by people who are in fraternities and therefore think they know something about Greek when they can't even pronounce the names of the letters properly. It's even more annoying when hoi polloi want you to respect what are basically mere opinions, despite the fact that you've spent years of study in submission to an actual discipline with a well-considered (even if often questioned) methodology and some actual scientific RIGOR.

So, I have often dropped my uncritically received opinion of the plural "syllabūs", generally with more evangelistic than polemic motives (ie. I think "gee, this is cool; I will tell so-and-so and they will be happy to have this knowledge!" not "Ha! This person is stupid and doesn't know Latin and I'm going to show them how much they don't know.")

Yesterday was one such instance. My mentor was talking about finishing up his "syllabi." Of course, my advisor, though not a classicist per se, has a solid background in the classics. And he pronounced "syllabi" properly as "sill-a-bee". My acquaintance with him generally has been filled with such moments of anagnorisis; there are any number of little off-hand comments that serve as tokens or signals among classics geeks that say, "You can relax. I mean no harm. I, too, am deeply familiar with the entirety of the I, Claudius miniseries. I'm one of you."
So, I said my 4th-declension-syllabūs spiel with the best of intentions. However, he is too much of a scholar to just accept what I say uncritically. His curiosity was piqued. And he looked it up in the Lewis and Short and emailed me. It seems I was wrong (*gasp* shock! horror!) And this is where my quest began.


  1. I always considered the plural of "syllabus" to be "syllabus"---like the plural of sheep. Or perhaps it's a collective noun, like salt. I dunno, but this just sounds right: "I have a lot of syllabus in my backpack."

  2. I was under the impression that, in fact, nobody knows how latin was pronounced. Am I mistaken? If so, how do we know?


  3. Hi Jen,
    I'd like to cite this blog post (and part 2) in a piece of academic writing that I'm doing and give you proper credit by name. Would you be willing to contact me so I can cite you appropriately? You can email me at

    Hope to hear from you! Thanks.