The Irregular Verbs

 

Steven Pinker

 

 I  like  the  irregular verbs of English, all 180 of them, because of what they tell us about the history of  the  language  and  the  human  minds  that  have perpetuated it.  

 

The  irregulars  are defiantly quirky. Thousands of verbs monotonously take the -ed suffix for their past tense forms, but ring mutates to  rang,  not  ringed, catch  becomes  caught,  hit  doesn't  do  anything,  and  go is replaced by an entirely different word, went (a usurping of the old past  tense  of  to  wend, which  itself  once followed the pattern we see in send-sent and bend-bent). No wonder irregular verbs are  banned  in  "rationally  designed"  languages  like Esperanto  and  Orwell's  Newspeak  --  and why recently a woman in search of a nonconformist soul-mate wrote a personal ad that began, "Are you  an  irregular verb?"  

 

Since irregulars are unpredictable, people can't derive them on the fly as they talk, but have to have memorized them beforehand one by one, just  like  simple unconjugated  words, which are also unpredictable. (The word duck does not look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck.)  Indeed,  the  irregulars are  all  good,  basic, English words:  Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. (The seeming exceptions are just monosyllables disguised by a prefix: became is be- +  came; understood is under- + stood; forgot is for- + got).  

 

There  are  tantalizing  patterns  among  the irregulars: ring-rang, sing-sang, spring-sprang, drink-drank, shrink-shrank,  sink-sank,  stink-stank;  blow-blew grow-grew, know-knew, throw-threw, draw-drew, fly-flew, slay-slew; swear-swore, wear-wore, bear-bore, tear-tore. But they still  resist  being  captured  by  a rule.   Next  to  sing-sang  we  find  not  cling-clang  but  cling-clung,  not think-thank but think-thought, not blink-blank but  blink-blinked.  In  between blow-blew  and  grow-grew  sits glow-glowed. Wear-wore may inspire swear-swore, but tear-tore does not inspire stare-store. This  chaos  is  a  legacy  of  the Indo-Europeans,  the remarkable prehistoric tribe whose language took over most of Europe and southwestern Asia. Their language formed tenses using rules  that regularly  replaced one vowel with another. But as pronunciation habits changed in their descendant tribes, the rules became opaque to children and  eventually died;  the  irregular past tense forms are their fossils.  So every time we use an irregular verb, we are continuing a game of Broken Telephone that  has  gone on for more than five thousand years.  

 

I especially like the way that irregular verbs graciously relinquish their past tense forms in special circumstances, giving rise to a set of quirks that  have puzzled  language mavens for decades but which follow an elegant principle that every speaker of the language -- every jock, every 4-year-old -- tacitly knows. In  baseball,  one  says  that a slugger has flied out; no mere mortal has ever "flown out" to center field.  When the designated goon on a hockey team is sent to  the penalty box for nearly decapitating the opposing team's finesse player, he has high-sticked, not high-stuck. Ross Perot has grandstanded,  but  he  has never  grandstood,  and the Serbs have ringed Sarajevo with artillery, but have never rung it. What these suddenly-regular verbs have in common  is  that  they are  based  on  nouns:  to  hit  a fly that gets caught, to clobber with a high stick, to play to the grandstand, to form a ring around. These are  verbs  with noun  roots,  and  a  noun  cannot have an irregular past tense connected to it because a noun cannot have a past tense at all -- what  would  it  mean  for  a hockey  stick to have a past tense? So the irregular form is sealed off and the regular "add -ed" rule fills the vacuum. One of the  wonderful  features  about this  law  is that it belies the accusations of self-appointed guardians of the language that modern speakers are slowly eroding the noun-verb  distinction  by cavalierly  turning  nouns  into  verbs (to parent, to input, to impact, and so on).  Verbing nouns makes the language more sophisticated, not less so:  people use  different kinds of past tense forms for plain old verbs and verbs based on nouns, so they must be keeping track of the difference between the two.  

 

Do irregular verbs have a future? At first glance, the prospects  do  not  seem good.  Old  English had more than twice as many irregular verbs as we do today. As some of the verbs became less common, like  cleave-clove,  abide-abode,  and geld-gelt,  children  failed  to memorize their irregular forms and applied the -ed rule instead (just as today children are apt to say  winded  and  speaked). The  irregular  forms  were  doomed  for  these children's children and for all subsequent generations (though some of the dead irregulars have left  souvenirs among the English adjectives, like cloven, cleft, shod, gilt, and pent).  

 

Not only is the irregular class losing members by emigration, it is not gaining new ones by immigration. When new verbs  enter  English  via  onomatopoeia  (to ding,  to  ping),  borrowings  from  other  languages  (deride and succumb from Latin), and conversions from nouns (fly out), the regular rule has  first  dibs on  them.  The  language  ends  up with dinged, pinged, derided, succumbed, and flied out, not dang, pang, derode, succame, or flew out.  

 

But many of the irregulars can sleep securely, for  they  have  two  things  on their  side.  One  is  their sheer frequency in the language. The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see,  and  get)  are all  irregular,  and  about  70%  of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb. And children have a wondrous capacity for memorizing words; they pick  up a  new  one  every  two  hours,  accumulating  60,000  by  high  school. Eighty irregulars are common enough that children use them before they learn to  read, and I predict they will stay in the language indefinitely.  

 

And there is one small opportunity for growth. Irregulars have to be memorized, but human memory distills out any pattern it can find in the  memorized  items. People  occasionally  apply  a  pattern to a new verb in an attempt to be cool, funny, or distinctive.  Dizzy Dean slood into second base; a Boston eatery once sold  T-shirts  that  read  "I  got  schrod  at Legal Seafood," and many people occasionally report that they snoze, squoze, shat, or  have  tooken  something. Could  such  forms  ever  catch on and become standard? Perhaps. A century ago, some creative speaker must have been impressed by the  pattern  in  stick-stuck and strike-struck, and that is how our youngest irregular, snuck, sneaked in.  

 

Steven Pinker is Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and the author of The Language Instinct (William Morrow & Co.,  New  York, 1994).