Dwarfs Are Only 'Dwarves' When They're Battling Dragons

Before a certain fantasy saga by J.R.R Tolkien was published, the only accepted plural for "dwarf" was "dwarfs". (Hence, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.) The plurisation "dwarves" was a deliberate deviation used by Tolkien to lend his prose a mythic quality. If you're a stickler for accuracy (and not writing a fantasy novel) you'll be wanting to use the former.

In addition to being a best-selling author, J.R.R Tolkien was a celebrated linguist who was endlessly fascinated by language. As any Middle-earth aficionado will tell you, Tolkien single-handedly created entire alphabets and languages for his fictional world; but he also tweaked English when it suited him. As he explains in the voluminous appendices to The Lord Of The Rings:

It may be observed that in this book as in The Hobbit the form dwarves is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows), if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men, or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales, where at least a shadow of truth is preserved, or at last to nonsense-stories in which they have become mere figures of fun.   But in the Third Age something of their old character and power is still glimpsed, if already a little dimmed... It is to mark this that I have ventured to use the form dwarves, and remove them perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days. Dwarrows would have been better; but I have used that form only in the name Dwarrowdelf, to represent the name of Moria in the Common Speech: Phurunargian.

Although "dwarves" had appeared in English texts previously, it was not in popular use prior to the publication of Tolkien's novels. These days, it is not uncommon to find this plural in non-fantasy contexts, but this is technically the wrong form to use. As the Macquarie Dictionary explains (emphasis ours):

"The first plural form given, dwarfs, has the greatest frequency and acceptability."

To be fair, the "wrong" spelling is not without precedent: the plural for "knife" and "wolf" is "knives" and "wolves", respectively. Nevertheless, for the time being, "dwarfs" remains the most widely accepted form outside of Dungeons & Dragons.

It should also be noted that people suffering from genetic conditions such as achondroplasia often find the word dwarf offensive -- in either of its plural forms. In these situations, you're probably better off using the medical term or a variation of the phrase "person of small stature". And definitely don't call them "Dwarrows". Accuracy and sensitivity matter.


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      Everyone looks good in a Kidman suit


    Isn't this just a US vs UK english thing? e.g. Roofs vs Rooves. Tolkein was Britsh and therefore would use the "ves" version of the plural. Snowwhite was a Disney Movie based on a German book (just called Snowwhite) and would use the "fs" version of the plural.

      Doubtful. As the Tolkien quote and Macquarie Dictionary entry show, 'dwarfs' is the prevalent spelling in UK English.

    The plurals of 'leaf' and 'loaf' are 'leaves' and 'loaves'. This makes 'dwarf' and 'dwarves' more logical.
    All grammatical irregularities, such as 'went' and 'bought' (rather than 'goed' and 'buyed') were originally probably invented as group speak, to make outsiders easier to identify. But they all make language acquisition more difficult for young children. So anyone interested in helping to enable children to learn as much as possible should opt for greater regularity wherever possible.

    I would especially love to see everyone contributing to making English spelling more regular. For example, if the letter 'i' on its own is good enough for the 1st person pronoun, why should we not use 'u' on its own for the 2nd too, instead of the silly 'you'?

    And why do we carry on decorating many words like 'have, give, promise' (cf. save, drive, surprise) with the surplus -e's which were added by 16th C printers for padding out texts and earning a bit more money? They confuse children far more than the itTE, hadDE, wordE which were also added by typesetters but got rid of again in the 17th C. (See my EnglishSpellingProblems blog if interested to learn more about the history of English spelling.)

    It's high time we stopped treating English spelling as if it was a sacred cow and made it a bit more sensible again. Most people don't realise that many spellings, like Chaucer's 'frend, hed, tred', were deliberately made more difficult between 1430 and 1755.

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