Monday, 25 June 2012

Homo sapien

The name of the human species is Homo sapiens, which means literally 'thinking man' ('man' obviously used in this case with its meaning of 'person of unspecified gender', rather than 'male human').

It's a bit unsatisfactory that part of the name for the human species is a word that means 'human', and that that same word also refers to all other species in the genus, which most people probably wouldn't consider to be 'humans' but rather closely-related species (Neanderthals and so on). Usually, people mean 'modern human' when they use the word 'human'. Still.

So, thinking man. Homo sapiens. Ever heard the song Homosapien by Pete Shelley? Or the band Del tha Funkee Homo Sapien? Both, you'll notice, use the 'sapien' part without the final s. Why? Well, it's a pretty straightforward case of mistakenly analysing a singular ending in s as a plural. 

The same thing happened to give us peas: we had a substance, which we knew as pease. We made pease pudding out of it. One day, someone started thinking that each of the little individual things was an instance of a pea (spelling not being people's strong point back then). It's as if we'd begun to refer to a grain of rice as a rie. That didn't happen because the final [s] sound is pronounced as [s], whereas in pease it's pronounced [z], which is just how the plural <s> is pronounced after a vowel. 
So we've got some people thinking sapiens is the plural of sapien. Can see how that happened: generally, when you hear the term Homo sapiens, someone's talking about the species as a whole, so it makes sense to assume it's plural (referring to all the members of the species). When you want to talk about just one, you use the singular. Obvs. 

So why am I blogging about it? Doesn't seem that fascinating. Although you have learnt about pease, which is definitely worth knowing. Well, I'm blogging about it because although this is a totally predictable, plausible, not-surprising reanalysis and you would think millions of people would get it wrong, no one does. Seriously. Apart from those two musical references, the google hits are sparse. There are not thousands and thousands of people typing blogs and questions and comments and all the other things you'd expect. Why not? How are they all getting it right all of the time? Are they always using the plural and so getting it right without knowing it? Is it just a term that no one who isn't reasonably well-educated uses? What's happening? I feel like I can no longer rely on real-life language to be messy and complicated.

Here is a link to Wikipedia's list of alternative names for the species. 


  1. As a little experiment, I Googled the single words "homosapien" and "homosapiens", which are wrong. The former gave me more than double the hits of the latter. This probably means that if someone is going to get it wrong, then they are going to get it very wrong, by both spelling it as a one word AND missing off the 's'. If someone knows that it is in fact two words then they likely also know that theres an s at the end.

  2. Huh. Google was giving me one-word results so I assumed it was counting both as the same thing. That does make sense, that if they know one they know the other. Thanks!