Horton Heared a Who!

Steven Pinker

Time, Nov. 1, 1999


 Kids say the darnedest things. "We holded the baby rabbits." "The alligator goed kerplunk." "Horton heared a Who!" These lapses, you might dimly recall, have something to do with irregular verbs. But please don't stop reading just yet. Children's errors are not just anecdotes for grandparents or reminders of long forgotten grammar lessons. They are windows into the workings of language, history and the human mind. 


Verbs in English come in two flavors. Regular verbs like walk and smell form the past tense by adding -ed: Today I walk, yesterday I walked. English has thousands of them, and new ones arise every day, thanks to our ability to apply rules instinctively. When people first heard to spam, to mosh, and to diss, they did not run to the dictionary to look up their past tenses; they knew they were spammed, moshed, and dissed. 


Even children do it. Told that a man likes to wug , they will say that yesterday he wugged. Children are not sponges; they are constantly creating new sentences and words, and never more clearly or charmingly than when they run into the second flavor of verb, the quirky irregulars. The past of spring is sprang, but the past of cling is not clang but clung , and the past of bring is is neither brang nor brung but brought. English has only 180 irregulars, a ragtag list that children simply have to memorize. 


But when an irregular word is still fresh in the mind, it is fragile. If a child's memory cannot cough up held quickly enough, he or she adds -ed by default and says heared or holded instead. 


Irregular and regular verbs embody the two underlying tricks behind the gift of articulate speech: words and rules. A word is a memorized link between a sound and a meaning. The word duck does not look,  walk, or quack like a duck. But we can use it to convey the idea of a duck because we all once learned to connect the sound with the idea. 


We also combine  words into bigger words and sentences, using the second trick of language, rules. Journalists say that when a dog bites a man, that isn't news, but when a man bites a dog, that is news. Rules they let us convey news, by reshuffling words in systematic ways. 


Today's regular and irregular verbs have their roots in old border disputes between the word module and the rule module. Many irregulars can be traced back over 5,500 years, to a mysterious tribe that came to dominate Europe, western Asia, and northen India. Their language, Indo-European, is the ancestor of  Hindi, Persian, Russian, Greek, Latin, Gaelic, and English. It had rules that replaced vowels: the past of senkw- (sink) was sonkw-. 


Language as it evolves over the centuries is like the game of Broken Telephone, where a whispered phrase gets increasingly distorted as it passes from lip to ear to lip. Eventually speakers can no longer discern the rule behind a motley set of mangled verbs. They just memorize them as a list, as do subsequent generations. These are the irregulars, the fossils of dead rules. 


The irregulars are vulnerable, too, because they depend on fallible human memory. If a verb declines in popularity, speakers may not hear its irregular form often enough to stamp it securely in memory. They fall back on -ed, changing the language for  following generations. That is why forms from Chaucer's time such as chide-chid  and writhe-wrothe disappeared, replaced by chided  and writhed. 


You can feel that force of history acting today. Smote, slew, bade, rent, and forsook sound odd, and few people would use them in casual speech. In a century they will probably go the way of chid and wrothe. 


Do irregular and regular verbs really come out of a dictionary in one part of the brain and a grammar in another? Perhaps. Some neurological patients seem to have damaged dictionaries: they strain to retrieve words, but speak in fluent sentences. As expected, they have trouble producing irregular verbs, and like children (whose memory for words is also fragile), they make errors like heared and holded. New techniques in cognitive neuroscience have found that irregular and regular forms trigger signals in different parts of the brain, perhaps from the systems for memory and for computation. 


Why pay so much attention to the lowly irregular verb? I see these studies as part of a trend in intellectual life that biologist E. O. Wilson calls "consilience":  the bridging of the two cultures of science and humanities through an understanding of  how the mind works. The link connecting the migrations of great prehistoric tribes to the brain-imaging technologies of the next millennium may lie in the slip of the child's tongue.