There is a recently-coined technical usage (in mathematics) of the word "anima", borrowed from Latin to English. The funny thing about this coinage is that the coin-ers of the term insist on using "anima" as both a singular and plural form of the word. They explain that the plural "should" be "animae", but that just sounds bad to them, so they use "anima" instead.

This clashes with my own sensibilities -- it seems to me that clearly the (singular, plural) forms of the word should either be (anima, animae) or else (animum, anima), or perhaps (animus, animi) if we follow the Latin, or else they should be (anima, animas) if we just anglicize everything.

But of course, it's not up to me. Even if I typically use "animae" as the plural in my own speech, I'd like to have a way to "justify" the usage of the word-coiners here, if only so that I can more comfortably slip into "their" usage when speaking to them. So this leads to my

Question: How can I "justify" this funny borrowing to myself? For example, are there other comparable examples of words borrowed from Latin into English (or between other languages) with confused declensions? Is this even a general phenomenon?

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    I would say this is probably indefensible to pedants. An infelicitous choice. – Cerberus Jan 6 at 0:32

It's not uncommon cross-linguistically for borrowed words to be "indeclinable"—that is, they don't inflect in any way, even if they should according to the rules of the destination language. For example, in French, the plural of caribou is caribous. But when it was borrowed into English it became indeclinable: one caribou, many caribou.

This is fairly rare in English (mostly occurring with names of animals and very recent borrowings), but shows up frequently in Latin and Greek, where case marking on nouns makes it more obvious. Most names borrowed from Hebrew, for example, are indeclinable: Latin Gabriel and Greek Γαβριηλ look the same in every case (and presumably every number, if you need to talk about multiple Gabriels).

  • Thanks! I think this will help me feel more comfortable with this usage. – Tim Campion Jan 6 at 0:27
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    I'd like to add that this never(?) happens with Latin words borrowed into English unless the Latin word was already very peculiar, pobably never at all? – Cerberus Jan 6 at 0:30
  • @Cerberus Thanks, I think this confirms my impressions! So this borrowing is at the very least highly unusual in the context of Latin-to-English borrowings, but in a broader context is potentially justifiable. I don't know if it makes a difference but I believe that at least one of the word-coiners here is a native German speaker. I wonder if this sort of thing is more common when borrowing into German? – Tim Campion Jan 6 at 0:34
  • @Cerberus There's a little bit of precedent, in that non-neuter fourth and fifth declension nouns look the same in the nom sg and nom pl so they tend to look indeclinable in English (ictus, species). And I could imagine people who don't know Latin extrapolating from that to some other Latin nouns. It's not great precedent, but it's something. – Draconis Jan 6 at 1:00
  • (Well, "the same" if you ignore vowel length, but that's standard in English borrowings.) – Draconis Jan 6 at 1:01

I'm one of the two people who suggested that term.

I'm completely fine with having the plural be "animae". The only reason I didn't like it is that I'm not familiar with any other "-ae" plural occuring in English, and at least when pronounced in the way one would (I think) use in German, it just sounds awful to me. So the main reason I "voted" for the plural being "anima" is actually that I felt it would make it easier to speak, and thus make adoption easier. But if you'd rather say "animae" (pronounced in any way you see fit), that's fine by me. I also think it's a very minor issue if there is some slight inconsistency in how people pluralize the word.

  • Thanks, Peter! I have to laugh, just because I feel as though I've blown this question out of proportion. Sorry about that! – Tim Campion Feb 25 at 12:16
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    Compare panini, which is commonly used as singular in English. Plural sometimes panini and sometimes paninis. – Colin Fine Feb 25 at 16:18
  • There's "alga" whose plural is "algae", pronounced "AL-gee". – Kenny Lau Mar 19 at 20:02

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