Q From Charles Coon in Canada: I have long been puzzled by the plural of ox. Someone new to the language might conclude that foxen is the plural of fox, or that chicken means more than one chick. According to my Concise OED, the suffix -en, among other things, forms the plural of ‘a few nouns such as children, oxen’. However, I cannot find the noun childr in any dictionary. What is the origin of this strange plural-making suffix? What other examples, if any, are there in addition to oxen?
A English grammar a thousand years ago was more like that of modern German, with endings for the noun that varied according to the job it was doing in the sentence. There were about a dozen markers for the plural in all.
As the language changed in the centuries after the Norman Conquest most of these were lost. The last survivors were -s and -en, the two most common plural markers in the old language; for a while the two vied for supremacy. The rare plural forms like oxen are left over from that period, with -en used for a very few words that fought off the encroachment of -s.
Children is a special case. One of the plurals of child was childer. This was once common in several English dialects; it used one of the Old English endings, -er, that vanished from the language in medieval times (it survives in German). This was then re-pluralised using -en in some parts of the country, perhaps under the belief that childer was actually singular. Several subscribers have written to say that the same thing happened in Dutch, to make the modern plural kinderen. The English plural should similarly have been childeren, but the first e vanished, as it often does in unstressed syllables in the middle of words. The intermediate plural childer survives only in some local dialects.
In chicken, the -en ending isn’t a plural, but a diminutive, expressing small size or affection, which also turns up in kitten and maiden. Chicken is derived from the same root as cock (through several layers of change) and originally referred to a young bird; chick looks as though it ought to be the root from which chicken was derived, but actually it’s an abbreviated form of chicken that appeared in the fourteenth century.
The only other common plural in -en that survives in the modern language is brethren. This came from an older spelling of brother as brether, and lost the middle e just as children did. For a while both brothers and brethren meant the same thing, but the latter gradually shifted sense to refer to a spiritual relationship. At one time it was also used for professional relationships, and survives, for example, in Masonic usage.