Submitted by Dyske on April 14, 2009

Why Don’t We Abolish Irregular Verbs and Nouns?

My 4-year old daughter haven’t learned about irregular verbs and nouns yet, so she often uses the regular versions like “hided”, “breaked”, “mouses”, “fishes”, etc.. Obviously kids learn the rules and try to consistently apply them instead of learning the usage of every word case by case. So, they face the same exact frustration that ESL students do, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought kids learn in a more empirical, case-by-case manner, rather than relying on logical patterns.

This lead me to look up the history of irregular verbs and nouns. If native speakers of English have a hard time learning it at first, how did irregular verbs and nouns come into existence in the first place? It’s as if some sadistic English teacher invented them so that he would have more things to test his students on.

I found this entry on Wikipedia about Indo-European ablaut which explains the history of it. Not being a linguist, I didn’t quite get some of the things explained there, but I understood that the irregular verbs and nouns came from different linguistic systems within which they were perfectly regular. In other words, the English language has incorporated different systems of inflection, and now we are stuck with them.

But I feel that this is something that we could all agree to change, just as the whole world (except for the Americans) decided at one point to adopt the metric system. We just have to deal with the grammar Nazis cringe and squirm uncontrollably for several years until they get over it. We would have one less thing we have to study at school, and the same time and effort can be used to learn something more meaningful and useful.

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<blockquote>The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty's Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five year phase-in plan that would be known as "Euro-English".

In the first year, "s" will replace the soft "c". Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard "c" will be dropped in favour of the "k". This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have 1 less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome "ph" will be replaced with "f". This will make words like "fotograf" 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be ekspekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent "e"s in the language is disgraseful, and they should go away.

By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" with "z" and "w" with "v". During ze fifz year, ze unesesary "o" kan be dropd from vords kontaining "ou" and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru! And zen world!</blockquote>

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Wars have been fought over this. When I studied Spanish with other students all from different countries we were given the assignment to talk about the roots of our native languages. From other classmates I learned a about German, Japanese, French, Portuguese, etc. But for my part, I had no knowledge. A few searches via Google and after reading articles in wikipedia and <a href="http://www.englishclub.com/english-language-his... rel="nofollow">other places</a>, I learned a bit about the history of English. Basically English started in the days of the Saxons when the UK was settled by a bunch of tribes. Then in 1066, the Normans invaded England and for 400 years only the lower classes continued to speak English. The upper classes and official language were a form of French.

So blame the French!

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Actually, this shouldn't be so hard to do if the president of the US wanted to do this. He could for instance make the regular versions of the irregular verbs officially acceptable among all governmental communication. In other words, both versions would be considered correct in the eyes of the government. There is no need to force anyone to use the regular versions either. We just have to wait a few generations, because the public schools and parents will stop correcting our children. Like my own daughter, all the children will use the regular versions naturally. I would imagine that in a few generations, the regular versions will be more common because they will come naturally.

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Probably most languages have irregular verbs, certainly the one I've come across have; this is a natural part of language development, and I don't think you can come up with one all-defining reason. This is what Etymology Online has to say about 'went', for example:

'Originally past tense and past participle of wend ...went developed from c.1200 and began to replace older past tenses of go. By c.1500 they were fully employed in that function, and wend was given a new past tense form, wended.'

In my experience, irregular verb forms do not cause EFL/ESL learners any great problems, apart perhaps from beginners; it's the use of tenses that give them the most trouble.

What's more it's a perfectly natural aspect of native-speaker learning that children sort out the main rules first, and then from about the age of four onwards, work out the irregularities.

The fact that English has relatively few verb forms (maximum 5, and with verbs like 'put' only 3), and that irregular verbs are amongst the ones we use most often, really stops this from being a problem. You Americans have a saying, after all, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Much more worrying is the idea that politicians should be involved in deciding the rules of English. It is to the great glory of English that all attempts to foist an Academy on us have failed. And it wouldn't be the 'grammar nazis' who would be protesting; they seem to rather like neat and tidy solutions. It would be ordinary speakers like me, who simply want to continue speaking the natural English we know and love, without interference from pedants, ethnic purists or reformers. Mess with somebody's language and you're messing with the whole basis of their culture.

It's not only English speakers who don't like government interference. The German spelling reforms of 1996 ran into a lot of flak, and it's my understanding that some of the main newspapers have gone back to the old system, or at least a half-way house. And a French law brought in in 1999 or 2000, restricting the use of English in commercial signs etc, had to be redrafted a year later, limiting it to government agencies only.

If people want a nice regular language, there's always Esperanto, but most of us prefer a language with a history and a culture, (irregular) warts and all.

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Dyske, I think you may have misunderstood an important point from the very link you posted: "...I understood that the irregular verbs and nouns came from different linguistic systems within which they were perfectly regular..." Actually, no. they didn't come from different systems. They came from our system. They have always been a part of English as long as there has been English and before. Irregular verbs are the way they are because they are the oldest verb forms from our "original" proto-language. It's no accident the the most common and utile verbs are also the ones that are irregular (i.e., to be, to go, to have, to do, etc.). It's their very familiarity and commonality that allows them to retain their irregular forms through the generations.

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Some English verbs have become irregular when they didn't used to be irregular... many verbs, for instance "sing/sang/sung", developed from the Proto-Indo-European system of regular ablaut. "sneak/snuck" and "dive/dove" are also relatively new developments.

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the first sentence error: haven't ----> hasn't

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Sorry, one sentence there was badly worded and implied something I didn't mean. I should have said - ' without interference from pedants, roots purists or top-down reformers'

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@Dyske - some five years later I bet your daughter has got them sorted now. At the age of four, children are still mastering the basic rules, and the whole beauty of language acquisition is that they do indeed learn logical patterns, not in a piecemeal way - see Stephen Pinker's 'The Language Instinct'.

At that age this is nothing to worry about as by about the age of eight most of then have sorted out the most common irregularities.

It's different for ESL students, incidentally, as they learn the irregular forms at the same time as learning the rules for regular forms.

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I must admit I had a good laugh when I read it. I really do pity American/English poor kids who only have to "learn" (actually this is acquisition, rather than learning, if they are exposed to the language at a very young age, and no worries it is not as painful as depicted in the article) just a couple of irregularities in the English language. Plenty of non-native English speakers managed to study it (in school, not by exposure!) along with their mother tongue - most of the time more sophisticated and elaborate in structure of the grammar.
As a native speaker of Polish (where a verb is not only in a different form for each person of plural and singular but also depends on the case applied - 7 of them!!!) I am happy to claim all Polish speaking adults manage to decline perfectly and have no post trauma. Rather quite opposite - it gives us extra ability and ease in learning other languages.
Please, don't be afraid to use your grey cells, don't worry, your brain is capable of much more ;)

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Mykalo! I loved your comment! Ha ha

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I like irregular verbs. They add color and diversity. And some words have both a regular and irregular form, which are NOT perfectly equivalent. I just left a post about pled versus pleaded before I came to this post. If the moderators put it up, take a look. If you like expressive writing, the more words in your toolkit the better, but they have to be reasonably common, easily recognised, so arcane words are not that helpful. Because of the history of English, the irregular verbs are the most common.

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language development is a complex process, I don't believe there exists any one way to change the cumbersome aspects of language - irregular verbs/nouns as examples. But it points to the multitudes of possibilities that languages offers, and as languages reflection, and dialectic with action and thought. The cumbersome historical routes specific words, and even structures - follow from the equally rich histories of ways humans can organize their social, cultural existence - including its philosophical/ logical ideas. Bumpy languages - and English is one - reflect bumpy histories etc. I think the pluralizing rule could logically go either way - and that is because logically there is no contradiction, simply two methods used to get to the same symbol.

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@Dyske ... "Actually, this shouldn't be so hard to do if the president of the US wanted to do this. He could for instance make the regular versions of the irregular verbs officially acceptable among all governmental communication." ... Actually this has been tried by presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan (and probably others) yet most people still use through, though, and although instead of thru, tho, and altho. Congress even forbade Teddy from using gov't funds to implement his reforms.

FWIW, I've been using thru, tho, and altho for over 30 years and people still send me corrections!

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I was going to leave what would probably become an increasingly nonsensical bluster of why this idea challenges base assumptions I have about language, but it turned out <a href="http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/" rel="nofollow">this smart guy</a> has already explained it in great detail. In short, language isn't arbitrary, so you can't just make a rule and thus it's so.

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Scyllacat, a link to the "smart guy's" explanation would have been infinitely more useful than simply putting a link to his site.

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You remind me of the spelling reform initiated by people like Webster, Bernard Shaw, and others. They tried and tried to change the spelling of English claiming that there is no one to one correspondence between sound and spelling in English. But they were not successful, well may be Webster was a little bit successful in changing some spellings that lead to the change between American and British English.
I think it is not only "grammar Nazis" would object to the change but ordinary people as well. You can not change something people are so well accustomed to.

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You mean "This LED me to look up the history..." :) Great post!

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Hi Porsche,

I may have. Could you elaborate on that? Am I correct in saying that there were multiple systems of inflection? If so, are you saying that these multiple systems of inflection were part of the one and the only linguistic system? In other words, they didn't come from different linguistic systems.

But then, I guess this becomes a question of what constitutes a "linguistic system".

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