Irregular ours

Posted by on August 21, 2012

© IMAGE 100Irregular 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.

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Comments (12)
  • Very interesting! Another irregular: the other day I came across ‘squoze’ as the past tense of ‘squeeze’ in a novel by Laurie Graham, who is British but often – as in this case – adopts an American persona brilliantly (in my opinion, though an American would be better placed to judge).The Urban Dictionary defines it, if ‘define’ is the right word, as “the wrong way to say squeeze for like past tense”. It also mentions ‘squozen’., with the exa “The diver might respond by saying that he was squozen by the pressure”.

    About ‘wend’, it is interesting isn’t it how these old forms are retained in fixed expressions. There is a great paper by Chris Gledhill where he calls these ‘lexical fossils’ – he discusses such phrases as ‘beck and call’, ‘by dint of’, ‘moot point’, ‘take umbrage’, and ‘with bated breath’. These don’t involve verbs of course but it’s the same sort of phenomenon as ‘wend your way’. I can send you this paper on a Word file if you are interested.

    Posted by gill francis on 21st August, 2012
  • Gill: I love squoze and squozen! Presumably formed by analogy with freeze–froze–frozen. Is it always jocular, I wonder, or are there dialects where it’s a legitimate variant?
    ‘Lexical fossils’ interest me too. They have a way of hiding in the background of our usage, as inconspicuous archaisms retained in fixed expressions, until one day we notice just how strange they are. If the Gledhill paper you mean is ‘A Reference-based Theory of Phraseological Units’, then I just found a PDF of it and will read it later – thanks very much for the tip.

    Posted by Stan on 22nd August, 2012
  • A A Milne was fond of the form ‘sqoze’ [sic]; he uses it several times in his stories about Winnie the Pooh: “He squeezed and he sqoze, and then with one last squze he was out.”| “So to the letter-box he rose,/While Pooh and Owl said “Oh” & “Hum!”/And where the letters always come/(Called LETTERS ONLY) Piglet sqoze/His head and then his toes.”

    Milne (or Pooh) even nouns the verb: “And a sort of sqoze/ Which grows and grows/ Is not too nice for his poor old nose”…

    Posted by Liz on 22nd August, 2012
  • The phrase “wend your way” conjured up an image of a zig-zagging dirt track through a forest. I blame this on interference from “wind” as in “winding path” and possibly from “weave” as in “weave in and out”.

    I once (years and years ago) read an article that quoted material from when the electric chair was invented. At least one writer is on record as joking that, in parallel to the distinction between hanged and hung, people executed by electrical means should be said to be elected.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 22nd August, 2012
  • Hi Stan:
    You brung up[ an interesting topic. Whether dialectical or by conscious back-formation, there remains a trend in English for creation of irregular verb forms. In a counter-trend, it’s interesting how very young children will try to regularize verbs, as in a child telling him mom (mum) that he “putted” away his toys.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 22nd August, 2012
  • Liz: That’s wonderful – thanks for sharing it. Now suppose I chose to start saying sqoze

    Adrian: My image of wending probably isn’t as winding as yours, but I do have the sense that it’s a less-than-direct or not-quite-efficient way of moving. I like that elect joke; it’s cute. Electro-cute, even.

    Marc: Yes, it’s a very interesting process, how we learn the rules and the exceptions. It’s less cut-and-dried than is sometimes supposed. Regarding the trends you mention, Steven Pinker put it like this, in his book Words and Rules:

    A common misconception is that because Old English had more irregular verbs than Modern English, languages always evolve from irregular to regular. Languages don’t consistently evolve in either direction, because different psycholinguistic processes constantly create and destroy and two kinds of words or convert one in to the other.

    Posted by Stan on 22nd August, 2012
  • Coincidentally, I read the following line last night: “Having chidden his wife, the peasant started to take round the vodka himself.” (In Tolstoy’s Master and Man: and other Parables and Tales.)

    Posted by Stan on 24th August, 2012
  • I happened across another inventive (and invented) past tense in Terry Pratchett’s Making Money: “Moist knew he was squirming, but squam anyway.”

    Later on in the same book there is a nice punctuation joke:

    ‘As’ chairman of the, Merchants’s Guild gentlemen may, I point out that these thing’s represent a valuable labour force in this’ city – said Mr Robert Parker.*

    *As a member of the Ancient and Venerable Order of Greengrocers’, Mr Parker was honour bound never to put his punctuation in the right place.

    Posted by Liz on 30th August, 2012
  • Thanks for the fun example, Liz. I like the sound of squam; it has anatomical connotations for me through the “squamous epithelium” I remember studying in college biology.
    Pratchett is to be commended for his restraint — the temptation to mispunctuate Robert Parker’s speech more wildly must have been considerable.

    Posted by Stan on 31st August, 2012
  • […] have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in […]

    Posted by Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets « Sentence first on 24th September, 2012
  • First,let me tell you that I love your blog, and have recommended it to several friends. Secondly, I enjoy saying and writing whilst, amongst and squoze. I like to say gay-raj rather than garage.

    There was a friend in Kentucky who always called a safety pin a latch pin. And on a little island off the Carolina coast, I heard the phrase :”Well, she ain’t ugly none.” That was from the History of English on PBS, possibly 30 years ago. Oh, and my family always said that they would “Leave the latch string out.”

    Hope this was not too off topic.

    Posted by Fuzzarelly on 24th September, 2012
  • Fuzzarelly: Thank you; I appreciate your visits and recommendations very much. While and among would be my default, but I also use whilst and amongst occasionally, despite their critics. I enjoyed your examples of regional speech: ”Well, she ain’t ugly none” is especially remarkable.

    Posted by Stan on 24th September, 2012
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