Are English irregular verbs becoming a thing of the past?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Cath.S., Feb 1, 2011.

  1. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    Hi anglophone friends,:)

    I have just read in the current issue of French science magazine Science & Avenir (#768) an short article in which Jean-Baptiste Michel, a graduate student at Harvard University, claims linguistics shows irregular verbs tend to disappear in English.

    His statement is based on the statistical study of a corpus of published books spanning 200 years (1800-2000).

    Now my question is as follows: have you noticed such a tendency in your own lifetime? I'd be really interested to know what you natives think about that.

    Thank you very much for your insights.

    RAFABARAJIM Senior Member

    Mexican Spanish
    I sincerely hope they do not disappear, of course it would be easier for new learners to use the past tense, but it might be more difficult to understand some expressions or sentences or even convey some meanings,

  3. Hermione Golightly

    Hermione Golightly Senior Member

    SW London
    British English
    That's one change I haven't noticed at all either in speech or writing, over nearly 70 years.

  4. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I think it's probably true that irregular verbs in English do tend to regularise themselves over time. But I can't think of any examples at the moment: I'll try to find some:).
  5. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that irregular verbs in general are disappearing, but I have certainly noticed that some irregular verbs are used incorrectly with some... well... regularity!

    I believe that a certain amount of this stems from the lack of grammar education in modern schools. In the 1950s, I believe most public schools explicitly taught grammar in English. You would know the difference between a subject and an object, past tense and past participle. Nowadays, many public schools have abandoned this subject and instead just teach kids what's "right" and "wrong" without explaining the structure of the language. So students either get grammar lessons at home (like I did, but I'm a rare one!), or they figure out grammar when they're forced to learn it for a foreign language class (although teaching grammar in foreign language classrooms is also going out of fashion in the US), or they never learn these things at all.

    So if kids never learn the difference between past and past participle, for example, it's no surprise that they use "showed" and "shown" incorrectly... or just drop "shown" from their vocabularies altogether.

    My pet peeve example is the difference between the verbs "to lay" and "to lie." Both are somewhat irregular, and many people confuse the two and conjugate each incorrectly.

    Another thing to take into consideration is that some dialects of English (such as African American Vernacular English) conjugate many common irregular verbs differently than in Standard American English. Millions of people are fluent in both AAVE and Standard American English, and manage to use these verbs perfectly in both dialects. However, a lot of children are brought up speaking AAVE and never really learn standard grammar through the school system, so they import new irregularities and ignore existing ones when they speak Standard American English.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2011
  6. wildan1

    wildan1 Moderando ma non troppo

    Per this blog entry: the half-life of an irregular verb is inversely proportional to the square root of its frequency.

    I think that's a fancy way of saying that infrequently used verbs get regularized more quickly than verbs we use all the time.

    The verb that comes to mind as differing according to meaning is to hang

    1. They hung the picture on the wall.
    2. When they captured the tyrant they hanged him.

    Happily nowadays, #1 is far more frequently used than #2. I wonder if #2 was always regular?

    I cannot think of any irregular/strong verbs that have changed in my 50+ years of speaking English natively, however. Nor can I account for the other 150 years in the study!
  7. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    Thanks to all who responded so far. :)

    you may have a point but surely when they first appeared those irregular forms did not arise from grammar teachers and were born, let's say, in a natural way, just through everyday common (and mainly oral, at that) usage, so surely their fate does not solely depend on whether the difference between past tense and past participle is, or isn't, taught in schools, don't you think?

    I am sure that the fact more and more non-native speakers use English will alter your language, but I would think that, on the contrary, it will become more simple and understandable. Global economy is one of the reasons more people have to express themselves in English, mostly for business purposes, and economic exchanges have to be accessible to the majority, as it is a matter of survival.

    thanks for the interesting link, it has holpen me. ;)

    In the meantime, especially after reading the example of help that was once a strong verb, I wondered whether its becoming regular was not connected to the fact that the noun is help, and not holp, since there seems to be a tendency to derive verbs from nouns.

    This is particularly true with new additions to language, verbs created from brand names for instance.

    gives us to google, a regular verb (past googled, past participle googled).
    So there seems to be at least one unquestionable fact; all new verbs will be regular.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2011
  8. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Here's one that occurs to me: dive.

    This previous thread indicates that the past tense dove is still alive and well in some varieties of AmE, whereas it's dead - I would say:) - in BrE.
  9. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    I absolutely agree with you. I don't believe that education accounts for all of the change in language over time, but since the period of time studied was 1800-2000, I imagine that formal schooling is a big part of the answer.

    Fascinating! I've always said "dove" and considered "dived" to be incorrect; I had no idea that BrE had adoped "dived."
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 4, 2011
  10. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    English - US
    It works the other way around as well though. The weak verb dive/dived/dived is well on the way to becoming dive/dove/dove thanks to the popularity of the strong verb drive/drove/driven. Since it's not dive/dove/diven, it follows neither regular pattern and both forms (dived/dove) are acceptable at the moment which is also unusual.
  11. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Jean-Baptiste Michel was a coauthor on this 2007 paper * published in Nature (one of the premier general science journals) and the abstract contains the following 4 sentences :

    The less frequently a verb is used, the sooner it succumbs to "regularization".
    QED :D

    See the presentation of the data in this Figure
    * Link to the abstract only ; full paper requires purchase.
  12. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    "Regular" and "irregular" are of course incorrect terms.

    Strong verbs, a feature of all Germanic languages (I can't give examples from other languages here), are inflected in part by changes in their internal vowel; in some verbs, the past participal ends in -en or -n.

    Weak verbs, in contrast, are inflected by the additional of a voiced or unvoiced dental stop (written in English with the letters d and t); in English, this inflectional ending is usually written with the letters -d or -ed, although it may be prounced with the sound usually written with the letter t. A few weak verbs also have an internal vowel change (bring/brought/brought; fight/fought/fought; the t at the end marks these as weak verbs).

    For a long time (hundreds of years), English has formed only new weak verbs; all strong verbs are descendents of at least the Old English (before about 1100) period. As weak verbs have become more frequent, their forms have been applied to strong verbs, adding the dental stop to the present-tense form; and these "incorrect" forms have, by usage, driven out strong forms and become "correct." I know of another Germanic language in which new verbs are predominantly or exclusively weak, also. That language often makes verbs by compounding, and when the root verb is strong, so is the new compound. However, verbs made from foreign words have a standard suffix, cognate to English -ize/-ise, that produces a weak verb. It may be that no new weak verbs are being formed in that or any of the other German languages.

    While some individual verbs have moved from the strong to the weak inflectional pattern, these verbs have not "disappeared." Some verbs, as well as some nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions, have become obsolete over time. Since new verbs are always weak in English, the proportion of all verbs that are strong shows a long-term reduction, but there is no sign that strong verbs like to come and to sing will soon become weak: come/comed/comed, sing/singed/singed. Young children, hearing the -ed pattern most often, may use such forms when the first begin using such verbs, but they soon learn the standard inflectional pattern.

    There is nothing "irregular" about strong verbs in English. There is a limited number of internal vowel changes. A common one is the -i-/-a- or -u-/-u- sequence, seen in cling, drink, shrink, sing, sink, slink, spin, spring, sting, swim, swing, and wring. There are other patterns that are found across many different verbs.

    The terms "strong" and "weak" are arbitrary, translated from the work of German philologists, who also use "strong" and "weak" to describe inflectional patterns of adjectives in their language.
  13. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    Very interesting; I had never heard this distinction. Thanks for enlightening us!

    I still don't see how truly crazy verbs, like "to be" and "to go" fit into this pattern, however.
  14. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    The original publication does not say the word disappeared. Its focus is on analysis of the "regularization" phenomenon i.e. the perceived irregularity is what disappears and the verb form changes from "weird" to "normal". (I'll refrain from making a fool of myself by using technical words for which I don't know the field's precise definition!)
    I suspect in the full version of the article, they will have defined their terms and source of the data they used for the analysis. I didn't purchase the article but provided the link to the presentation of the analysis results.)
  15. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    "To be" and "to go" can reasonably be described as "irregular."

    Go was a regular strong verb, as can be seen by the past participle, gone, with the -n sound at the end. In German, the comparable verb has a "strong" pattern. "Went" was introduced into English in the 10th and 11th centuries by Scandinavians speaking a North Germanic instead of a West Germanic dialect. How it came to displace the regular Old English or Anglo-Saxon past forms of the verb "to go" (which had a different form at that time), I don't know.

    Be also has a mixture of strong and introduced forms; as with go, the past participle (been) shows the strong form with an -n at the end instead of a -d or -t. The modern German verb is not regular, either, but has to be memorized. At some point early in the development of Indo-European, this very common verb developed exceptions to the standard verbal patterns. In another older language I have studied, Latin, the comparable verb also does not follow exactly any of the five standard patterns (conjugations), and has to be memorized.
  16. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    Many educated people I know struggle to recall the correct past participle of the verb to drink. I routinely hear drank, drunken, dranken, even drinken, but rarely do I hear plain old drunk. :confused:
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 4, 2011
  17. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I don't think there is a fundamental disagreement here on the changes going on here, except perhaps the terms - the authors use a word "irregular" but provide a specific meaning for this term - maybe only for this analysis, even. They test the hypothesis that the less frequently a "strong" or "irregular" (or my term weird) verb is used, the more likely it is to change and become "regular" or "weak" (or normal!)
    Even in the abstract of the article that elicited the OP's post, they describe what they mean by irregular (I would expect more detailed description in the article itself!)
    Indeed, and the original article never claimed that : they have become "regularized", in the jargon defined in the paper cited. "weak drives out strong" may be a succinct definition of what they mean by "regularization".
    Come and sing are used quite frequently, so they are NOT conceived of as candidates for "regularization"
    But the frequency with which they hear this "standard pattern" will determine how well they will learn it. That is the thesis that the analysis of the data supports.
  18. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    I don't have access to the original article; I was responding to the original post and the terms used in it.
  19. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I haven't even seen the article the OP referenced but it must refer to the original work for which I gave a link in Post 13. There, the abstract can be read and the substance to which the OP referred is what I was quoting from. I think the OP was either misled (or mis-wrote) that the verbs themselves disappear.
  20. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    The article I quoted from is a very recent interview of Jean-Baptiste Michel, and the words he uses can be literally translated (and don't have any hidden meaning) to
    we have shown that in English, irregular verbs tend to disappear.
    The study he is referring to is a statistical one, made possible by the digitisation of 4.2 million books, which is, according to him, 4% of all books ever written.
    I am not saying he is correct, I'm just reporting what I read.
  21. Elle Paris

    Elle Paris Senior Member

    San Diego, CA/Paris, France
    American English
    I have noticed that I avoid certain verbs because my brain cannot sort the data concerning them any more.

    get got got/gotten ...up? over?
    awaken awoke awoken
    wake woke woke/woken? up? too hazy to use for me these days!
  22. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Gotten has largely disappeared from BE - therefore change in the direction of regularisation.
    Dove (v. dived) has been mentioned - the OED says that this was used from the 18th century in AE and some British dialects, and dived is the older form - so an irregular form was introduced.
    Snuck (v. sneaked) similarly originated in AE - another irregular form.

    It's not clear to me that irregular verbs are going away!
  23. Sedulia

    Sedulia Senior Member

    Paris, France
    **Literate** American English
    I love irregular verbs, but even quite common ones are disappearing, especially in the U.S.A. because there are so many immigrants, but also in the U.K., and in both places the reason is mainly that people don't read books. I've heard educated people say "he drunk" or "the ship sunk" and a major Hollywood movie was called "I Shrunk the Kids." New York Times reporters write that somebody "weaved through the crowd" or "kneeled down" or "the sun shined." If you use some irregular verbs correctly, almost no one even recognizes them. "Throve," anyone? That's why I was thrilled when J.K. Rowling wrote that Harry Potter "span around."

    When I was a child, a lot of people knew the difference between "lie" and "lay." Now, I don't think a single young American does.

    I'll be sad when they go!
  24. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    Dove is probably by analogy to another common Anglo-Saxon verb, drive. The analogy has not extended to the past participle—it's dive/dove/dived, not dive/dove/*diven as would be the case if dive were of the same class of Anglo-Saxon strong verbs as drive.

    I've looked at a list of "irregular" English verbs but can't find an -ea-/-u- analog for sneak. By analogy to other verbs, we might expect sneak/*snoke/*snoken (analogy to speak, break) or sneak/*snake/*snoken (analogy to speak/obs. spake). Note that, like dive, this faux strong verb also retains a weak past participle. People who use the non-standard snuck say have sneaked, not have snoken or have snuck (by analogy,say, to strike/struck/struck).

    Neither of the dictionaries on my shelf recognizes "snuck" as a possible preterite. There was a thread here about "snuck" a while ago.
  25. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    I love them too, especially since they gave me such a hard time when I was a young student :D, learning them by rote, neat lists in alphabetical order. But somehow I don't think I'll still be around by the time they totally disappear.

    Don't shoot the messenger, but I'm afraid I am the bearer of bad news.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2011
  26. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    I'm not sure how you define "young," but I'm 23 and I do! I'm probably in the minority among my peers, though.
  27. wildan1

    wildan1 Moderando ma non troppo

    There is probably a bias here--what people say every day and what those who write and get books published are often not exactly the same.

    Too bad the study didn't look at spoken language (I admit that is hard to going back more than 60-70 years ago, but still).

    That suggests there is a fundamental flaw in the argument if he is not distingushing between spoken and written forms of the language...
  28. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    Some of the -i-/-a-/-u- verbs have an alternative -u- past or preterite form. The SOED accepts this for sink but not for shrink; the American Heritage Dictionary accepts it for both verbs. I haven't checked all of the verbs of the -i-/-a-/-u- class. I learned only shrank and sank. I don't know whether the -i-/-u-/-u- pattern is personal, regional, or dialectical.
  29. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    You certainly have a point there, Wildan, but wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that people who write books are often more educated than those who don't, in any case more careful about their word choice? If we agree on that, then we could logically imagine that in spoken English, people would tend to use the irregular forms of strong verbs even less often than professional writers, couldn't we?
  30. mplsray Senior Member

    For the record, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there were both strong and weak forms in Old English of the verb which lead to our dive but the current strong past and past participle form dove is a separate matter. As the OED puts it, "the modern dialect past tense dove is apparently a new formation after drive, drove, or weave, wove."

    To answer the questions posed by the original poster, (1) I have not personally noticed the change from strong to weak forms, but (2) the answer to the question in the topic title--Are irregular verbs [strong verbs] becoming a thing of the past?--is "No.," since it is a rather over-the-top exaggeration of what change actually is occurring.
  31. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    The Modern English paradigm of "to be" is essentially the same as in Old English (Olde Englisc, Anglo-Saxon), but involves forms from four different PIE verbs:

    am/is, related to German ist and Latin sum, est, etc.,
    are, related to Latin eris, erat, etc.,
    was, related to German war, gewesen, etc., and
    be/been, related to German bin, bist and Latin futuro, fueram, etc.

    I am not sure if all new verbs are regular.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 4, 2011
  32. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    Well, some of us do!

    I've got a splitting headache! I think I'll go and lie down.
  33. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)

    Cath, The quote above is the abstract from the major study published in Nature* where, in 2007 (only 3 years ago), they make no mention of verbs disappearing, only the irregularity disappears. Either they have done a new study discovering that many verbs have actually disappeared or the translation refers to the disappearance of the irregularity. Can you provide any link or source to that interview or reference/description of the study?
  34. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Moderator note: The nice folks at Etymology and History of Language have agreed to host this thread provided it stays nicely on the topic set out in the original question.
    Thanks for your patience:)
  35. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    See also this related thread.
  36. OBrasilo

    OBrasilo Senior Member

    Koper, Slovenia, Central Europe
    Brazil, Brazilian Portuguese
    Go was NOT a regular strong verb even in Old English. Its past tense came from another verb. "I went" was Ic eode.
    In German, the past tense is from a verb ging-, if I recall correctly, "I went" is Ich ginge.

    In any case, English does show a tendency of going from strong to weak. Confront help/halp/hulp to modern help/helped/helped, for example. ;)
  37. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    :thumbsup: The Modern English verb go is actually two Anglo-Saxon verbs welded together: gan and (ge)wendan.

    (Be is the same: beon and wesan.)
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2011
  38. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    Thanks to everybody who makes this thread possible, mods and contributors alike.:thumbsup:
    I read every contribution with great interest and delight.:thumbsup:

    The related thread berndf gave a link to made me think that since all the older, strong English verbs seem to express basic human actions, if our society shifts towards a more abstract approach of the world, those basic verbs could very well disappear in the long run, eat could become obsolete some day and be replaced by nourish, sleep by rest etc.

    Just an idea. :)
  39. sanne78 Senior Member

    I have noticed that verbs like to dream and to learn seem to have become regular.

    I have always said: to dream -dreamt - dreamt and to learn - learnt -learnt, and was therefore very surprised to hear/read: dreamed and learned.

    Is this a difference between BE and AE or is this a shift from irregular to regular (as the title of this thread suggests)?
  40. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    AE has completely regularised to dreamed, kneeled, learned, leaned, etc.

    BE has for a long time allowed either dreamed or dreamt, kneeled or knelt, learned or learnt, leaned or leant. It's not clear to me whether one form is dominating.
  41. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I have noticed things like "The former governor pleaded guilty to ...", where I would expect "pled guilty". (This may be a case of change over time, or it may be a case of my favorite newpaper being bought out by its long-time competitor.)

    To me, pleaded would be appropriate in "She pleaded with them to spare her son."

    I grew up with "I grabbed the vine and swung across the creek", but now I hear "swang across the creek". This may be regularization or the opposite since we have lots of i - u - u verbs as well as lots of i - a - u verbs. As far as I know, no one says flang for flung or clang for clung.

    Come to think of it, I would say stank, but stunk as past tense seems to be gaining ground.
  42. Walshie79 Junior Member

    Shropshire, UK
    English (British)
    It's always pleaded guilty in BrEng. At least, I've never heard pled. I was once really surprised to hear a Canadian say improven as the past participle of improve. (Had never heard that in Britain, it does vary here between proved and proven although I tend to associate the latter with Scottish speakers).

    In this part of England the past tense of write is commonly writ, rhyming with bit.

    As for some other "are they strong or weak" verbs; I think strive is about 50-50 for modern British speakers; I'd probably write strove/striven though strived doesn't sound inherently "wrong" like drived, for example, would. Thrive I'd say is now a weak verb for the majority; thriven in particular does come across as rather old-fashioned.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2011
  43. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    None of the two, to plead & to prove, are original strong verb but they are both French loans where the irregular forms are constructions by analogy.
  44. Babel3000 Junior Member

    Babel tower
    Many French verbs are that 'strange'. The indicative form is sometimes very different from the I, you (singular), he, she, they normal forms (at the simple present tense for example). Most of the times the we and you (plural) form are 'closer' to the indicative form.To be, to have, to say, to go are some examples.

    Aller (to go)
    je vais (I go)
    Tu vas (you go)
    Il/elle va (he/she goes)
    Nous allons (we go)
    Vous allez (you go)
    Ils/elles vont (they go)

    This pattern goes for some Italian and Spanish verbs too (maybe Portuguese too), my Latin grammar is not too good but it might come from there (and/or Greek) since these South European languages come from Latin and Greek.
  45. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    Hi Babel 3000,
    aller is pretty unique and its different forms come from three separate Latin verbs, ambulare, ire and vadere (further details here).
    But these irregular forms tend to remain totally stable in French, no adult ever says "j'alle" or "ils alleront" instead of je vais and ils iront. They might in centuries to come, though, since today a true tendency towards regularization of French verbs appears in the fact that all the new verbs that are created these days seem to follow the regular pattern of the first group: infinitive in -er, consistant conjugation rules and easy-to-build past participles in é.
  46. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    Interesting. I would say that "knelt" and "dreamt" are in fairly common use in American English (at least among some groups), although "learnt" and "leant" are not.
  47. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Even in spelling sandpiperlily?
    Both forms are acceptable in BE so I just wondered if you were referring to pronunciation or spelling.
  48. go4kevin New Member

    Tallahassee, Florida
    American English
    I agree with his statement. It seems to me that due to the extrem laziness of most English speakers, the language has become very fluid malleable. This is not at all a bad thing, I feel as though this is the reason English has an extremely large lexicon of words, and that this laziness and thus fluidity and malleability of the language is the very reason English has so may ways of expressing thoughts and feelings. Though back to the point at hand, irregular verbs becoming regular. Take the verb 'to learn' for example, in the past tense learn is traditionally 'learnt'. However, learnt is, to the modern english speaker, a very awkward construction (not to mention how awkward it is to say), thus modern English speakers tend to say 'learned'; a regularization of an irregular verb.
  49. Elle Paris

    Elle Paris Senior Member

    San Diego, CA/Paris, France
    American English

    In Charente-Maritime, there are people, older and younger than I, who still say j'alle, ils alleront and j'allons (whatever that is!)!
  50. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    1) wrong.
    2) wrong.

    Please speak on behalf of your version of English and do not generalise to others. This is very normal and universally accepted in British English. We do not find it 'awkward' at all (Learn @ Oxford).

    Last edited: Feb 7, 2011

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