Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Weak Links

In a comment to something I posted a few days ago, reader joe805 said:

I'm assuming you saw the results of that recent Harvard study on the half-life of regularization of English irregular verbs? This post reminded me of that and made me consider the idea that all newly-coined verbs (or words previously used only as nouns but which then morph through usage into verbs) would certainly be regular, correct?

I hadn't, in fact, read anything about this, though now I have, and thanks for the pointer. You (that's the plural you, which is to say "everyone who isn't joe805") can read it here, and interesting reading it is, too.

I did know about that general thesis, though, at least about the fact that it's the most commonly used irregular verbs that tend to remain that way, for the most part. Lots of strong verbs (they're the ones that have a vowel change) have become weak verbs (the ones that follow the invariant pattern "[verb]", "[verb]ed", "have [verb]ed") over time: "help" is a very common verb, now perfectly regular ("help", "helped", " have helped") and yet its Old English forms, based on German strong verbs, were "help", "holp", "holpen" (which lines up pretty well with modern German "helfen", "half", "geholfen"). This vowel change is typical of strong verbs. "Help" eventually became a weak verb, and all newly coined verbs, as joe805 noted, start out that way. Occasionally we'll make a joke preterite and past participle, such as "think", "thank", "thunk" (modeled after "drink", "drank", "drunk"), but that's just playing with language; when we bring a new verb into the language, it will be a weak verb--a regular one, with a regular ending.

There are, as the article notes, some irregular verbs that are perpetually battling for supremacy. The smart money, of course, is on the weak form winning, eventually, but it could take a long time. "Thrive", for example, has two preterites, "throve" and "thrived", and two past participles, "thriven" and "thrived". This pattern should sound familiar: "drive", "drove", "driven". Because "drive" is used much more often than is "thrive", it's likely that the weak form of "thrive" will win out, but that the irregular forms of "drive" will remain in the language for a long while yet.

The article also points out that the ten most common verbs in English (be, have, do, go, say, can, will, see, take, and get) are irregular. This is as we would expect; because the verbs are so frequently used, there isn't much of a chance for them to lie dormant, get revived and mistakenly regularized, and then eventually have the irregular forms lost so that the regular forms replace them.

Not all irregular verbs are strong verbs: sometimes the preterite shows no vowel change, which is the hallmark of the strong verb, and in therefore no change at all. Fascinatingly, all of them end in "-d" or "-t". Some have two preterites: the past tense of "knit" can be irregular "knit" or regular "knitted", depending on context and dialect, and the same is true of such verbs as "wet". Others have only the irregular form, such as "cut".

Plural nouns are similar to verbs as regards regularity: there are a fair number of irregular noun plurals in English, but when we're pluralizing a new noun, we invariably add an ess to the end of it. The only exception to this is when we're making a joke: patterned after "ox/oxen", an irregular plural which survives to this day, you will see the plural of VAX (a computer term which I'm not going to spell out for you) written as "VAXEN" rather than the expected "VAXES", or "box"--usually a computer housing, but possibly any kind of box--as "boxen".

We even make regular plurals out of foreign imports. The Italian plural of "cappuccino" is "cappuccini", but you will likely never see that word in English-speaking countries outside of an Italian restaurant menu, and possibly not even there. The correct English plural is, of course, "cappuccinos". (Sometimes, as I've noted before, we start off on the wrong foot: instead of adopting Italian "panino", we took its plural, "panini", as the singular, and then naturally pluralized it to "paninis".)

The Harvard study noted that the most-used verbs are the ones most likely to remain irregular, and that the half-life of an irregular verb is proportional to the square root of the frequency of its usage. This is why "to be" will remain wildly irregular until the end of time.

4 Comments:

Anonymous OmegaMom said...

I thought that was a very interesting study.

Friday, November 16, 2007 12:45:00 AM  
Anonymous joe805 (kusala68@hotmail.com) said...

Glad you enjoyed the study and that I was able to alert you to its existence.

I think the full study is available at the link below:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7163/full/nature06137.html

I originally read about this in the Los Angeles Times, and I particularly enjoyed a modified version of one of the study's charts, which ran with the article. The original is here:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7163/fig_tab/nature06137_T1.html

I've enjoyed finding this blog through Now Smell This, and I also just glanced at your fragrance blog, which also looks great and which I'm sure will become regular reading.

Friday, November 16, 2007 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous joe805 (kusala68@hotmail.com) said...

Glad you enjoyed the study and that I was able to alert you to its existence.

I think the full study is available at the link below:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7163/full/nature06137.html

I originally read about this in the Los Angeles Times, and I particularly enjoyed a modified version of one of the study's charts, which ran with the article. The original is here:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7163/fig_tab/nature06137_T1.html

I've enjoyed finding this blog through Now Smell This, and I also just glanced at your fragrance blog, which also looks great and which I'm sure will become regular reading.

Friday, November 16, 2007 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Thiltetu said...

Reminds me of the case of Spanish, where more recently coined verbs almost always end in -ear. The other conjugations are much older, and fewer in number.

Sunday, November 18, 2007 5:01:00 PM  

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