I was recently writing for my family history blog Birds of Cressingham a piece about a family with the unusual name Whalebelly. Jonas Whalebelly – Birds of Cressingham (wordpress.com)
I started wondering what I would write if I were talking about 2 (or more) people with that name. Should I write Whalebellies or Whalebellys?
English normally spells the plural of words ending in -y as -ies, not -ys. For example, berries, not berries. And, if I were writing about the abdominal parts of 2 whales, I would definitely write whalebellies.
But that feels odd with a personal name. I had a strong feeling that Whalebellies would look strange. Similarly, if talking about 2 people called Kelly, I think I would write Kellys, not Kellies.
Confirming my hunch
I looked up this point in The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, by Laurie Bauer, Rochelle Lieber and Ingo Plag (2013). It confirms my intuition: ‘proper nouns ending in <y> usually retain the <y> in plural forms.’ It illustrates this retention with 4 examples: Marys, Hail Marys, Bettys, Februarys. All these seem correct to me.
For their other example, Bauer, Lieber and Plag do list both forms: the two Germanies / the two Germanys. For this one, only the form Germanies ending in -ies looks right to me.
Why are personal names different?
I’m not sure why it feels right to retain the <y> with personal names. It may be because the suffix -s performs a slightly different function with personal nouns. For other nouns, the -s is an inflectional marker marking the noun as plural.
Perhaps that suffix is less tightly integrated with a personal name. It could that if I refer to someone by their name, say, Whalebelly, ‘Whalebelly’ is really short for something like ‘human being called Whalebelly’. The plural of that long form version would be ‘human being called [Whalebelly]’. So the -s suffix really belongs not to the personal name ‘Whalebelly’ but to the understood and unpronounced noun phrase ‘human being’. And because that noun phrase is silent, the suffix remains outside the personal name as [Whalebelly]’s. A barrier after the name prevents the suffix from reaching back into the name and modifying its spelling.
And the 2 Germanies?
My account doesn’t explain why Bauer, Lieber and Plag view both spellings as acceptable for Germany—and why in that case I prefer <Germanies> and <Germanys> seems to me much worse, perhaps even unacceptable. It could just be that I have simply internalised a pattern I have saw many times (before German re-unification).