Is there is some explanation why the plural form of man and woman is pronounced in such a way?

  • 1
    The question title speaks of pronunciation.
    – apaderno
    Feb 8, 2013 at 12:07
  • 3
    Ablaut has been around for a very, very long time, and is present in many (most?) PIE-derived languages. If you are looking for a technical explanation, ELU has an ablaut tag with 9 questions, and searching there for ablaut yields lots more. Still more abstruse discussion on ablaut can of course be found by searching Linguistics.SE for ablaut. Tolkien uses ablaut a lot, as in adan (man) becoming edain (men) in the plural.
    – tchrist
    Feb 8, 2013 at 13:50
  • 5
    I think this question is more appropriate for EL&U.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Feb 8, 2013 at 15:00
  • 2
    This is an excellent question, but not, I'm afraid, one that can be answered here. If you want deeper understanding of the history, you cannot do better than follow tchrist and Kit's recommendations to seek an answer on ELU. If what you want is some general rule that tells you which words behave this way, there is none: it's basically a matter of historical accident. Feb 8, 2013 at 17:51
  • 1
    I couldn't disagree more. This is a relevant question for an EFL learner, and if you don't like the answers provided so far, please provide your own, in graded language. Feb 8, 2013 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


From Wikipedia:

Ablaut plurals

The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular, in a process called ablaut (these are sometimes called mutated plurals):

  • foot feet
  • goose geese
  • louse lice
  • man men
  • mouse mice (including in a computing context, though sometimes mouses is used there)
  • tooth teeth
  • woman women /'wɪmɨn/

This group consists of words that historically belong to the Old English consonantal declension, see Germanic umlaut: I-mutation in Old English. There are many compounds of man and woman that form their plurals in the same way: postmen, policewomen, etc.


I would caution some of the responders here to please "watch your language". "mOnhawk" has asked a great question, but too many of you have used language that is too difficult for second language learners to understand. The lovely people who are asking questions here are second-language learners, and you have to grade your language accordingly. (Of course, it IS difficult, and in my following response to mOnhawk, I have probably failed to appropriately do so, but I have tried, and so should you... I have spent in excess of 2 hours trying to grade my language on this post; how much time did you spend on YOURS?)

mOnhawk, thanks for a great question! kiamlaluno and trideceth12 have both provided the Wikipedia entry for something called an ablaut plural. The information they provided is a good start as an answer to your question, but I think that probably the term "ablaut plural" is a little confusing. I will try to explain "an ablaut plural" in simpler English. Please look for that explanation in the "thirdly, part c" section, at the end of my post. Before I explain the strange category called "ablaut nouns", I think it will be useful to give you some information about how to make other kinds of nouns plural.

However, none of the previous responders have talked about the pronunciation of man compared to men, nor woman compared to women. Neither have I; none of us talk about the pronunciation differences you are asking about. I would suggest that you read through my long, long answer, which mostly focuses on the grammar related to your question, and then if you have any other questions, please ask.

If you are only interested in the pronuncation differences between an ablaut singular noun (like man) and an ablaut plural noun (like men), then maybe none of the answers provided so far, including mine, will be helpful. If, however, you are interested in more than pronunciation, please keep reading, and I hope I can help you.

First of all, when writing or speaking about nouns in a plural form (a countable noun that is more than one -- two or more), the easiest kind of noun to understand and use is the regular noun, which, when you have to spell or pronounce it, simply adds "-s" or "-es", depending on the sound at the end of the word. The "sound at the end of the word" difference is difficult to understand, so please let me know if you want more information. For now, I will give you some examples:

  • I went to many shops.
  • I have gone to many classes.
  • I have kissed many elephants.
  • I hope to receive many kisses.

You can find more information on these and other variations here: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/plurals-of-nouns. If, after you review that explanation, you have any other questions about this part of my answer, please let me know.

Secondly, there are the semi-irregular plurals, a group of nouns that end in certain sounds like -th, -f, -lf, -rf and -fe* for which, unfortunately, you will have to study and memorize the correct form for the plural because there are so many differences; for example:

  • mouthmouths
  • monthmonths
  • leafleaves
  • calfcalves
  • halfhalves
  • dwarfdwarves
  • knifeknives
  • lifelives

Thirdly, there are (at least) three kinds of irregular plural nouns, which, unfortunately, you must also study and memorize to be able to use correctly. The strange-sounding term ablaut plural is one of these, so please keep reading (it is part (c)) and don't give up!

(a) the kind of plural where the singular and plural forms are the same word (most of these are kinds of animals, but there are other examples (let me know if you'd like some examples): moosemoose; deerdeer, salmonsalmon;

(b) a small number of nouns where the plural form adds -(r)en (most of them are so old-fashioned that you don't need to worry about them, but here are two examples that are still used today, especially the first one): child → children; oxoxen;

(c) finally, this strange German term, the ablaut plural: some irregular nouns have a pronunciation and a spelling difference between vowel sounds in the singular form and the plural forms. Your question is about the singular/plural pronunciation change between manmen and womanwomen, and it is the most relevant and common example of this singular noun → plural noun pronunciation change. Also, when you write or speak using a small number of irregular English verbs, there is also an ablaut past → present → past participle difference in both spelling and pronunciation: singsangsung.

I have given a hopefully comprehensive summary of how to make singular nouns plural in English, including the ablaut, variety, but I realize that I have not precisely answered the question you asked in your headline, about the pronunciation differences. I hope the information I have provided will help you begin to think about the various ways English nouns are made plural, and hopefully other experts here might address the pronunication issue in a way that easy to understand. If you have any other questions, please let us know.