Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.
We save on memory by having a default. In English, this means adding -ed to use a verb in the past tense, and pronouncing the suffix one of three ways depending on the verb ending: a ‘t’ sound for unvoiced consonants (rushed, talked), ‘d’ for voiced consonants and vowels (called, vowed), and ‘əd’ for verbs already ending in ‘t’ or ‘d’ (started, welded).
New verbs and whimsical verbings are almost always regular. So if we want to make a verb out of, say, meerkat, we just add -ed (and double the t). In fact, an author did just that, writing “meerkatted to attention” in a recent novel. It was never going to be meerkot, meerkate, or anything other than meerkatted.
New regulars predominate, but irregulars occasionally emerge. Knelt from kneel appeared in the 19th century, apparently following the pattern of feel-felt and the related sleep-slept, meet-met, feed-fed and company. Snuck from sneak arose mysteriously around the same time, perhaps by analogy with stick-stuck and with a pinch of sound symbolism. Though obviously irregular, these forms follow eccentric sub-rules of their own within clusters of similar-sounding words. You can test your knowledge of them using Macmillan’s Irregular Verb Wheel.
Most of the commonest English verbs, such as be, do, have, go and say, are irregular. They have been used often enough for long enough to resist being regularised. Go took its past-tense form went from that of the verb wend, as in “wend your way”. The radical irregularity of be, with its was, were, is and are, results from an ancient merger between several Old English verbs, including bēon, eom and wesan.
Over time, some irregular forms die off from disuse – or they survive only in regional dialects, which is where we find brung and holp alongside brought and helped. Irregulars that are seldom used are more likely to eventually conform to the norm; thrived, for example, is supplanting throve, which now sounds old-fashioned; ditto chided and chid. And sometimes two past-tense forms are retained with slightly different uses, as with hanged and hung.
In the last link, Beth says this idiosyncrasy is part of what makes the language beautiful, and I agree. By the time native English speakers are adults, the strangeness of irregular verbs has faded through familiarity. But every word is a window into its colourful history, and some of the most interesting views are through our irregulars.Email this Post