From Chris Waigl (in Fairbanks AK), two photos of Arctic ruminants:

LARS is the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Photo by Chris.

This photo is on a card from Greatland Graphics in Anchorage. The linguistic hook comes in the text on the card:

Muskox Yearlings

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) at one time ranged throughout most of northern Alaska but were hunted to extinction there by the late 1800s. They were later reintroduced back to Alaska from Greenland in the 1930s and can be seen in the wild on the North Slope, Nunivak Island and the Seward Peninsula. When in danger, muskox will form a line or back into a circle to face the threat head on. A producer’s cooperative at the Muskox Farm in Palmer raises the animals for their fine hair (qiviut) which is woven into clothing.

Chris wrote muskoxen on her photo, but the card’s text has the zero plural muskox. OED3 (June 2011) on musk ox (the spellings musk ox, musk-ox, and muskox are all attested) says:

A large, heavily built ruminant, Ovibos moschatus (family Bovidae), with a thick shaggy coat and horns curving down from a boss on the head, formerly found throughout the Arctic region but now chiefly on the tundra of northern Canada and Greenland.

The male emits a strong odour during the rutting season.

It has cites from 1744 and, significantly, lists the plural as “musk oxen or unchanged”. There’s real variation on this point.

There’s much less variation for ox itself. The OED has only the plural oxen (or, in a few cites, non-standard oxes), and plural ox is very rare, though not completely unattested:

If you can, picture a long piece of wood, hoisted in the air above a circular, center machine, by which two ox were strapped in on either end of the bar and instructed to walk round and round, while sugar cane was fed into the center machine. (link)

How many ox are in a yoke? (link)

A zero plural for muskox but not ox would be predicted by (weak) generalizations concerning zero plurals. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language  has a summary of “base plurals” on pp. 1588-9, with five subsections, beginning with:

(a) Nouns denoting edible and game fish: carp, cod, haddock, hake, mackerel, perch, roach, salmon, trout, turbot.

These (and others of the same semantic class) almost always have base plurals.

(b) Nouns denoting game animals and birds, of three subtypes:

[i] bison, deer, grouse, moose, swine [base plural only]

[ii] elk, quail, reindeer [base or regular plural]

[iii] elephant, giraffe, lion, partridge, pheasant [base plural restricted]

… Those in [iii] normally have a regular plural as the only possibility …; base plurals, however, are found in the context of hunting and shooting (They were hunting elephant) or when referring to collections of them (a herd of elephant).  It is arguable, however, that the latter construction involves not a base plural, but a special use of the singular in certain syntactic contexts (comparable to the six foot tall construction …).

The muskox is a game animal (note the reference to hunting to extinction above), so muskox should fall in group (b), for which a zero plural is (at least sometimes) allowed; the facts of the matter suggest that it belongs to (b)[ii]. On the other hand, the ox is a domestic animal, so ox (like cow, horse, pig, and goat) should have only a regular plural. (Sheep, exceptionally, has only a zero plural.)

(The world of zero plurals is wondrous and complex, taking in much more than the cases considered in CGEL.)

5 Responses to “muskox(en)”

  1. Benjamin Barrett Says:

    As a side note, we have both Oxford and Oxenford as names. The OED has this for the etymology of oxford: Old English Oxnaford (also Oxenaford), lit. ‘ford of oxen’, is attested from the first half of the 10th cent.

  2. chryss Says:

    I should stop by at the Institute for Arctic Biology and ask them how they form the plural.

    The local paper (the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner) uses both forms. I think it is an overall good newspaper, but maybe in proportion to the expectations of its readership and small size, it is not usually standing out as a shining example of editorial care and attention to detail. This article has “musk ox”, “muskox” , “muskoxen” and, in the “similar stories” links, “musk oxen” as plurals on the very same page. They are in the news regularly, a bit less than caribou (sic) and a lot less than moose and bears, though.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I have other examples of respectable media going back and forth on alternative plurals — for example, an NPR story with plural crabs and crab together.

  3. chryss Says:

    PS: The mental image of these great shaggy beast “bouncing back and forth” between Canada and Alaska made me laugh.

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