Dwarfs vs. dwarves

Dwarfs is the standard plural of the noun dwarf. Dwarves is a newer variant popularized (though not invented) by English author J.R.R. Tolkien in his fantasy fiction works, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien spelling is appropriate when referring to little people in fantasy worlds. Dwarfs is better everywhere else. (There is controversy over whether dwarf is ever a polite term for real-life people, but we won’t go into that here.)

Dwarf also works as a verb meaning to cause to appear small in size. In this sense, dwarf is inflected dwarfs, not dwarves, in the third-person singular present tense.

The below ngram graphs the occurrence of the dwarfs and the dwarves (with the definite article to remove instances of the verb sense) in a large number of English-langage texts published in the 20th century. Of course, it doesn’t show how the words are used, but it does indicate that dwarfs was much more common than dwarves at the start of the century, which is also apparent in historical Google Books searches limited to pre-1930 texts. That dwarves has gained ground in the decades since Tolkien’s books were published makes perfect sense, as his writing is very popular and widely discussed. Plus, due to his influence, dwarves now make its way into non-fantasy contexts much more often than it used to.

The Dwarfs Vs The Dwarves English



The latest teaser picture for the forthcoming adaptation of the Hobbit has been released, showing a trio of hardy warrior dwarves. [Daily Mail]

Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world. [NJ.com]

This world is made up of wizards, dwarves, witches, vampires and a variety of other characters. [Guardian]

Dwarfs (noun)

Most varieties grow about two feet tall, though some dwarfs are only half as tall. [Sioux City Journal]

Dwarfs tend to be used for “eating fresh,” and the tall forms for coconut oil and for fiber. [Laboratory Equipment]

The brown dwarfs are an estimated to be 15 light years and 18 light years from the sun. [MyFox Atlanta]

Dwarfs (verb)

God is poking his tongue through the Puyehue volcano, whose carbon output dwarfs industry’s. [Sydney Morning Herald]

A giant drill, used for projects like the Chilean Miners rescue, dwarfs nearby houses in Newcastle’s West End. [BBC]


57 thoughts on “Dwarfs vs. dwarves”

  1. I do not understand why dwarfs is the plural of dwarf when it refers to a smaller person. Other words ending in “f” are changed to “ves,” so why not dwarf? Examples: loaves, calves, wolves, leaves, selves, wharves, halves, relieves, believes, scarves, sheaves, shelves, thieves, beeves, hooves, and, especially, elves. Turves is one of the acceptable plurals of turf. Staves is also one of the plurals of staff. These are just ones I thought of off of the top of my head. I’m sure there are others. It seems strange to me that Tolkien had to “change” the plural when, to my mind anyway, it should have been dwarves all along. What are your thoughts on this, if I may ask?

      • “Safe” as you have used it, is a noun for a lockable container to keep valuables. Thus, “safes” is rightly its plural. Save/saves, of course, are verbs.

      • You know where this comes from? In old English (and modern German) a word never ends in a voiced consonant. The original words ended with voiced sounds, but because of this Germanic development in Old English, they are spelled with the unvoiced equivalent.

        But if you add an “S”, the consonant is no longer at the ends, so it becomes voiced. (S is an exception, it pronounced as Z here). The rule still holds in modern German, but has fallen away in English.

        These words are Germanic in origin and the pronunciation has remained (unvoiced ending).

        • Frau Katze isn’t quite right. There are plenty of words in Old English which end in voiced consonants; and most consonants were either always voiced or always unvoiced. But fricatives (what in modern spelling are s/z, f/v, and th) weren’t. They were voiced when between two voiced sounds; and because our plural ending -s was -as in Old English, voiceless fricatives in final position in nouns were regularly voiced in the plural.
          But the final consonant of “dwarf” wasn’t f in Old English; the word was dweorg, parallel to beorg which is our modern word “barrow” The final g in these words was probably pronounced as a voiced fricative in Old English; “barrow” is the regular phonetic development, “dwarf” is irregular. So whether we say “dwarfs” or “dwarves” we are using an analogical form.

          Different dialects in Middle English did different things with fricatives at the beginnings and ends of words. The general pattern is that voicing is most prevalent in the south, devoicing in the north. “Vixen” for the female of “fox” is originally a southern dialect form. The Times of 21.xii.2013 quotes a 71-year-old reader from Middlesex as saying that when she was brought up the plural of dwarf was always dwarves. It also refers to a graph of changing frequencies of dwarfs/dwarves as being somewhere on this website, but I am new to the site and haven’t found it yet.

    • “Relieves” and “believes” are verb forms, not nouns. The plural of “belief” is “beliefs” and the plural of “relief” is “reliefs” (which in this case would have to mean relief sculptures, not relief as in help, which is uncountable and should not be pluralized).

    • “Elves” wasn’t made up, or even popularised, by Tolkien. Elves is the standard plural form for elf according to the OED and it cites examples going back to Shakespear’s The Tempest from 1623 and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan from 1651. The oldest use of elfs cited by OED is in John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern from 1700.

      • Hmm… I believe you are correct. I know that I had a source back when I wrote that, but I don’t know of it now. It was obviously wrong, but it would be interesting, to me, to see where I got it from.

    • Especially in languages like English that involve a lot of borrowing and theft from other languages, there’s a lot of variability about whether to use regular or irregular verb forms. Disney used “Dwarfs” for his movie about seven of them. Tolkien’s discussion on his choice was that the plural really ought to be “dwarrows” if you want to keep more of the history of the language around.

      There’s one story told about it that says some copy-editor tried to tell Tolkien that it should be “dwarfs” because that’s what’s in the OED; his reply was that he had written the OED and he was going to use “dwarves”.

      • See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:

        Letter 17:
        “No reviewer (that I have seen), although all have carefully used the correct dwarfs themselves, has commented on the fact (which I only became conscious of through reviews) that I use throughout the ‘incorrect’ plural dwarves. I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go on with it. Perhaps my dwarf – since he and the Gnome are only translations into approximate equivalents of creatures with different names and rather different functions in their own world – may be allowed a peculiar plural. The real ‘historical’ plural of dwarf (like teeth of tooth) is dwarrows, anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit tooarchaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word dwarrow.”

        Letter 25:
        “And why dwarves? Grammar prescribes dwarfs; philology suggests that dwarrows would be the historical form. The real answer is that I knew no
        better. But dwarves goes well with elves; and, in any case, elf, gnome, goblin,
        dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of
        not quite the same kinds and functions.
        These dwarves are not quite the dwarfs of better known lore. They have been given Scandinavian names, it is true; but that is an editorial concession. Too many names in the tongues proper to the period might have been alarming. Dwarvish was both complicated and cacophonous. Even early elvish philologists avoided it, and the dwarves were obliged to use other languages,
        except for entirely private conversations. The language of hobbits was
        remarkably like English, as one would expect: they only lived on the borders of
        The Wild, and were mostly unaware of it. Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.”

        Letter 156:
        “Even the dwarfs are not really Germanic ‘dwarfs’ (Zwerge, dweorgas, dvergar), and I call them ‘dwarves’ to mark that.”

    • “The original editor of The Hobbit “corrected” Tolkien’s plural dwarves todwarfs, as did the editor of the Puffin paperback edition of The Hobbit. According to Tolkien, the “real ‘historical'” plural of dwarf is dwarrows or dwerrows.
      Dwarf (Middle-earth) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia “

  2. I tend rather towards dwarves over dwarfs. It matches better to my expectations of stressed vowel + /f/ words. Like knives, or dare I say it, rooves. The vowel stretches through the f, as if accentuating the larger size or number of the plural. Perhaps, there is an etymology here in our long forgotten past of inflexion on vowels rather than simple minded affixing of the morphemic s. Speculation, speculation. But it’s nice to think that when we use these subtle variations we are reaching back in time to when English was another language.

  3. Speaking of correct grammar etc. Why is industry’s used by the SMH? If it’s plural then it should be industries and it MUST be plural unless the sentence is incomplete and there is a word missing on the end which would have to be something belonging to an industry [singular]to account for the apostrophe!
    Why is there a comma after volcano? ‘Whose’ is a conjunction and in this case a comma is unnecessary.
    Just thought I’d mention it :-)

    • “industry’s” is correct – the meaning of the sentence is that the carbon output of the volcano dwarfs that of industry. The sentence could equally have ended “industry’s carbon output”, but that would have been less elegant. The comma is also correct; omitting it might imply that there are more than one Puyehue volcanoes (perhaps a volcanic mountain range named Puyehue) and that God is just poking his tongue through the one whose carbon output greatly exceeds that of industry (although I’ll admit that within the context of the article from which the quote was taken, the meaning was probably clear).

  4. The “commas” mentioned below are in reality “apostrophes”—the abandoned punctuation mark(s)………

  5. dwarfs are the small figures that you put in the garden, dwarves otoh, are “A short, sturdy creature fond of drink and industry”. Did I say alcohol?

    • There are also English teachers who will tell you it’s correct to say, “I am taller than him,” “Who do you like better?” or “He dove off the cliff,” though the correct forms are actually “I am taller than he,” “Whom do you like better?” and “He dived off the cliff.”

      Grammar is dying. Don’t always accept and trust what teachers tell you.
      That said, grammar is not everything. The prescriptive way that a language is taught is rarely how it is spoken in everyday conversation. I myself would usually consider “dwarves” more appropriate as a noun, but Chrome has just made some sort of point by underlining that word in red after I typed it.

      • I was living in Massachusetts when I learned “dwarves vs. dwarfs.” We learned many things that in retrospect seem to be more British or Canadian, such as “grey,” and “theatre,” rather than the more common American forms like “gray,” and “theater.” I don’t know whether that mind set is regional or not, or peculiar to that time and more specific place.

        • And there was I supposing you’d be southern as opposed to northern English. Interesting that such voicing contrasts have crossed the Atlantic. I don’t suppose you have any idea if they’re dialectally mappable there?

          • Hmm, interesting. I know that speech patterns in the deep hollows of Appalachia and in the island cultures of the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia are rife with Elizabethanisms. Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands, and rural areas around Buzzard’s Bay, the specific area that I am originally from, share a similar time frame for original settlement by Europeans, as well as where the settlers came from as those Southerners. (17th century, largely from the British Isles.) They also had similar profiles of isolation. I don’t know how dialectic mapping is done, but I think it would be an interesting study.
            Forty-five years ago, people still lived on Cuttyhunk, and “Hunkers” could be a little hard to understand. Moving to NW South Carolina for a couple of years back then, city folk were hard to understand, but the “hill folk” that came to the city from time to time were next to impossible to understand, until you developed an ear for the lingo. Since then, population mobility has increased dramatically, and radio and television have just exploded, causing regional accents and speech patterns and construction to become less distinguishable one from another in the US. I can’t help but wonder how a study now would differ from earlier ones, and how populations that have moved around vs ones that have stayed put, or vs age groups would spool out.

  6. True enough, teachers do not always have a lock on correct information; my son had a teacher who insisted that bottlenose dolphins were fish, not mammals. That said, your red-lined grammar correction comes from the folks whose maps have roads going where no roads do. I suppose I must resign myself to the fact that what is considered proper usage shall change whether without input from me.

  7. Well, crud. Wysiwyg turned out to be wysiwasn’t… looked like it erased, but it hadn’t. Autocorrect is not neccesarily our friend…


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