But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

Notes
[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Errata
Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

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One response to “But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

  1. Pingback: SLP Corner: But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?” | PediaStaff Pediatric SLP, OT and PT Blog

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