Ducklings and goslings and inklings, oh my

That moment when the elves take your baby and leave one of theirs in its place.

I dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 AM today.  Under normal circumstances, if I’m still in bed at 5:45 AM, it means that I had a rough night–I am most definitely both a morning person, and an early riser.  Seulement voilà (“the thing is”):

  1. At this time of year, it doesn’t get light outside in Paris until about 8:30 in the morning.
  2. At 2 AM I got obsessed with the need to learn all of the words for baby animals in French.

Morphemes are the things that words are made of.  For example, the plural cats has two morphemes: cat, and the that carries the meaning of plurality.  (This happens to be the example from which my child learned what a morpheme is–as a young child, and as we did the dishes together.  Must suck to be a linguist’s kid…)

English has an odd little morpheme that refers to things that are small.  Like the of cats, it is what is called a bound morpheme, meaning that it cannot be a word on its own–it has to be attached to something else.  (Contrast that with the cat in catnap (a short, light nap), catnip (a plant–it’s basically pot for cats), and cathouse (a brothel–archaic)).  Here are a couple of examples:

  • duckling: a baby duck.
  • inkling: a small hint, or a small piece of knowledge.  (I’ll give some examples of its use later.)
Source:  See the site for helpful information about how to recognize a foundling, return a foundling, etc.

The -ling morpheme is also not productive: that means that you can’t really use it freely to make “new words.”  For example, it’s not clear that anyone would know what you meant if you casually threw the words waterling (parallel to inkling) or penling (parallel to duckling) into a conversation.  (Contrast that with -gate, which over the course of my lifetime has become applicable to practically anything, with the meaning of “a scandal related to:” Bridgegate, Pizzagateetc.)  Because it’s not productive, one could list all of the words in English in which it occurs.  Limited only by my memory, of course.  My best shot at doing so:

  1. duckling: baby duck
  2. gosling: baby goose
  3. foundling: a child who has been found after having been abandoned
  4. changeling: when the elves take away your baby and leave one of their own in its place
  5. inkling: a small hint, idea, trace, piece of knowledge, clue

In the Foundling Hospital grounds, London, c1901 (1901)
The London Foundling Hospital in 1901, from an article about a 1911 foundling lottery in Paris at

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, you’re a drooling idiot.  There are lots of words in English that end with -ling: for example, DROOLING.  Feeling, wheeling and dealing (French: mic-mac or micmac), healing… 

Well… I may be an idiot, but I’m not a drooling one.  Here’s the thing: a morpheme is defined by its sound (or spelling)–in our case, ling–and by its meaning.  Drooling and gosling (baby goose) contain the same sounds/letters, but not the same meaning of smallness, so it’s not the case that they share the same morpheme.  -ling is a pretty textbook (French: typique) example of a non-productive morpheme.

So, yeah: I don’t sleep much, and I’m trying to learn to speak French, so at 2 AM I got obsessed with learning the names of baby animals in French.  This web page got me started, and then I started searching for weird English-language baby animal names (say, gosling), and here you see the results.  (Yes, some occur more than once.) At 2 AM, I only knew chiot (puppy), chaton (kitten), and veau (calf)–how about you?  And, native speakers (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you)–can you add some more?

Adult animals:

Juvenile animals:

English-language example sentences


  • The Steel Riders Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy novel about Free Wheeler, a foundling discovered by the legendary Steve Thompson during a deep terrain ATV ride. Thompson leads an ATV pack known as the “Steel Riders.” In their fantastical journeys Free Wheeler finds true love and home.  (Twitter, @quantum_tide)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia, there’s a National . I have never heard of anything so glorious! (Nobody in my family cares about gravy as much as I do. I… might be a foundling?)  (Twitter,
  • Can I just say…Baby Faced Finster. A foundling!! You Naughty Baby!! Hahaha! 😂❤️  (Twitter, @TheSuperAmanda)


  • I’ve mentioned this numerous times on the podcast but… I have an inkling that Nintendo will use Smash DLC to promote upcoming (inc third-party) Switch releases.  (Twitter, @pixelpar)
  • My new resolution is to not read the thread of comments of tweets where I know or have an inkling that it’s not going to be a good thing.  (Twitter, @valparkie)
  • You are a gem of a friend and you don’t have an inkling of how much i appreciate your ignorance of my vices.  (Twitter, @Shakti_Shetty)
  • I don’t have an inkling of what the future holds but I’m excited  (Twitter, @JaredTench)
  • Roommate, Camden *going to Waffle House in Dunn*: “If I get the smallest inkling of a crack-whore, I’m leaving!”  (Twitter, @dr_pattyguin)


13 thoughts on “Ducklings and goslings and inklings, oh my”

  1. I see you did much research (next time try the different species of trees or flowers – it’s a serious hassle, like all sorts of fishes) . It seems you didn’t write “nestLING” which is “OISILLON, used for any bird .

    A few real”-LING” in “EAU” :
    Chevreau = goat’s child .
    Lionceau = lion cub
    Eléphanteau = elephant’s .
    Souriceau = mouse’s .
    Serpenteau = snake’s .

    For a change let’s look at ” piglet”, that has the honour of having 2 synonyms : “PORCELET”, logical, and more surprising “GORET” .
    In the same family we find the wild boar =” le sanglier”, the wild sow = “la laie”, and their child “le MARCASSIN” . Funny, hey ?

    Let’s not forget the majestuous deer, “le cerf”, his pretty wife “la biche”, and their cute child, “le FAON”(pronounced like enfant, exactly like the peacock, “le paon” or the horsefly, “le taon”).

    I don’t know why the boar and the deer families have three different roots in their names . I know the sheep has too (“mouton, brebis, agneau”) but they are familiar, close to us . Another game would be finding other animals like this .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if it’s really time to erect a gravestone over -ling. Most words with the ending are 500 or more years old, but cageling, fledgling, and hatchling are all attested first in the 19th century (according to M-W anyway). I expect that you could still make -ling productive if you coined a term that the reader or listener would know indicated a smaller, weaker, and/or more vulnerable exemplar of the term it was affixed to: wifeling, mayorling, waifling.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I think “filly” is the French “pouliche”, sort of feminine of “poulain”, and “pony” is un poney, a different animal from horses, isn’it ?
        Le Cheval et la jument, male and female horses, le poulain et la pouliche, male and female horse’s children . We have the same for sheep, le mouton et la brebis, adults, l’agneau et l’agnelle, sheep’s children . My question is why a few animals have three roots instead of one . And not limited to domestic ones, see “le sanglier, la laie, les marcassins” and “le cerf, la biche, les faons” . It is a mystery for me .

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I’ll agree with Orin Hargraves on -ling. I think of this suffix sometimes because I mention it in class and, like Kevin, it’s difficult for me to come up with examples. But there are more than appear at first blush: Underling, hireling, and yearling come slowly to my mind.

    But, while not super productive, I think as a term of derision it works better. ‘prince-ling’ or ‘lord-ling’ might be examples, with a somewhat nastier connotation than “-let”.

    Is ‘darkling’ an example? I know the word only from Matthew Arnold’s “Dove Beach”.


    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: