English: 'burn', 'learn', etc. + '-ed'

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by JuanEscritor, Nov 1, 2012.

  1. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Hello all,

    I am curious to know the history surrounding the alternate past forms for English words such as learn, and burn, which have the past tense forms of learned/learnt, and burned/burnt, respectively I'm interested in knowing about both the pronunciation histories and spelling histories of such words.

    Other similar words of interest to me are dream (/dɹimd/, /dɹɛmt/) and clean (/klind/, /klint/). I'm told by some people that they don't consider /klint/ a possible pronunciation, so it may be dialectal.

    My personal preference with these words is to spell them using the <ed> suffix, as it conveys accurately the underlying morphology, while pronouncing them all using the /t/ forms the way I grew up learning them.

    So what light can be shed on these phenomena? I get a feeling there might be more than one story behind these words. I would really like to know what those stories are.

    Huge thank you for any help, answers, or tips!

    JE
     
  2. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    The alternative graphemes must be due to the pronunciation of /t/ rather than /d/ and the consequent modification of the vowel whenever this is possible. With all of these verbs I hesitate when it comes to writing them. Personally I think I opt more often for /t/ when it's the past simple and /ed/ when there is an auxiliary verb involved, but I think that must be my own taste. Otherwise, like you, I always pronounce /t/ and modify the vowel (eg. dream (/dɹimd/, dreamt /dɹɛmt/) regardless of the spelling. I have never encontered "cleant" (for "cleaned") before and always pronounce it regularly.

    *Some Germanic languages modify vowel sounds when verb or noun suffixes are added to roots. This is common in German and accounts for the umlaut that raises the vowel. I'm not sure if this may or may not be a possible origin or just a coincidence. "Träumen" in German is already modified in the infinitive
     
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2012
  3. swift

    swift Senior Member

    Spanish – Costa Rica (Valle Central)
  4. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Have a look here. It seems like usage varies greatly and can be quite complicated. It's certainly true there can be differences between adjectives and verbal forms: Burnt toast.. not burned toast, but I have burnt/burned the toast.
     
  5. Yondlivend Senior Member

    American English
    Before I begin I would like to clear up some abbreviations I'm going to use: GVS for Great Vowel Shift, NE for Modern English, and ME for Middle English.

    Here's how I understand the vowel difference between "dream" and "dreamt" (I'm not sure if it's correct, but it seems possible)

    Based on the fact that the vowel in "dream" is pronounced /iː/ and is spelled "ea," I assume its pre-GVS pronunciation was /drɛːm/ (I'm using the r indiscriminately here). It would have had a long vowel. NE dreamt is pronounced /drɛmpt/, which has the same vowel as the infinitive did in ME, however it is shorter. I believe that it was shortened before the GVS, and then left unaffected while "dream" changed in pronunciation, which would account for their different vowels.

    As to why the vowel was shortened, one possible reason is due to Trisyllabic Laxing. Using the form in berdf's post (the one swift linked to) "dremede," supposing at one point it was pronounced /drɛːmədə/, then it fits the necessary conditions for this to occur: two or more syllables following the main vowel (dre-me-de). After the vowel shortened, the unstressed vowels were lost. Perhaps one possible sequence is dremede > dremed > *dremt > drempt, or in a chart:

    /drɛːmədə/ > /drɛmədə/ > /drɛmədə/ > /drɛməd/ > /drɛmt/ > /drɛmpt/
    /drɛːm/ + GVS > /driːm/

    Thoughts?
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2012
  6. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    According to the MED, the past tense form drempte (i.e. with "t" and not "d") had a short "e" already in ME.
     
  7. Yondlivend Senior Member

    American English
    When I wrote
    I was trying to say that at some point in ME (before the Great Vowel Shift) the vowel in "dreamt" became short. I'm still not sure of how it did though, or for that matter how the past tense suffix -t came into use. So my question is:
    1) Was the vowel-shortening due to trisyllabic laxing (as in my chart in post #5) or something else?

    What confuses me is how the vowel would have become short if the suffix -t(e) were simply added to /drɛːm/ to create /drɛːmpt(ə)/? What would cause /drɛːmpt(ə)/, with a long vowel, to become /drɛmpt(ə)/, with a short vowel?
     
  8. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I doubt it ever was long. The verb is a ME creation (I believe the earliest attestations are from ~1200) and the pt./ppt. are formations by analogy from other weak verbs. It should also be noted that in the form with "t" the tone syllable was closed (dremp-te) and in the form with "-d" open (dre-me-de or dre-med) which makes a short vowel much more likely in the former than in the latter.
     
  9. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Thank you for the great research.

    My understanding of trisyllabic laxing is that it was a universal process. I am not aware of any other words that may have inconsistently been subject to this process. The Wiki article you linked to gives a few possibilities, but the first two involve words with multiple derivational changes, and the last one, obese, is apparently a back formation from obesity.

    Another word in this category is mean/meant. This one is different in that, as far as I know, there is no /mind/ alternative for the past tense.

    JE
     
  10. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    As for your list, I prefer <ed> in most cases. As verbs, the only word in the list I would spell with a <t> is knelt. I don't see <dreamed>/<dreamt> and <kneeled><knelt> to be completely interchangeable spellings. If your past tense involves the voiced /d/, I don't think the <t> spelling is acceptable. Interestingly, Mozilla's AE dictionary doesn't like kneeled or dreamt.

    I don't think I would pronounce all of them with a /t/ ending (/spɔɪlt/ doesn't ring familiar). I'm also in the middle of a busy office, and might have to wait till I am alone to say some of these words out loud and check my pronunciation.

    As adjectives, I don't write these words often enough to know which spelling I prefer. I am certain, however, that learned is the only possible spelling for this word, as it has two syllables.
     
  11. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    In most of these cases, if I'm reading I don't think I really even notice if the verbs on this list are written with -t or -ed. "He kneeled down beside her" wouldn't shock me but I might prefer to write "knelt". Since it's not a verb I use very often I'm not sure what I would say spontaneously. I wouldn't say "I dreamed about you last night" but could write it that way. When reading it I'd pronounce it "dreamt" in my mind whatever way it's written.

    Regarding pronunciation I don't pronounce a strong "T", but not really a "d" either. Maybe I say something quickly in the middle. Not /spɔɪlT/ or /spɔɪlD/, but perhaps /spɔɪldt/. If there is a vowel that follows I do pronounce "d": He spoilt/ spoiled it. (/hi spɔɪldIt/)

    Agreed for "learned" pronouced "learnèd".
     
  12. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    The length of the syllable nucleus might be an indication as to which pronunciation you use. In running speech, word-final /t/ and /d/ are very difficult to distinguish on their own characteristics, so I've been basing most of my self-analysis on length differences.

    JE
     
  13. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I doubt it has anything to do with trisyllabic laxing, otherwise forms ending -ede should bear the short vowel as well.
     
  14. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Apparently syllable structure can be to blame for some of these differences, especially where present qualitative vowel changes occur. A Biography of the English Language gives the following words as examples of ME long vowels shortening in closed syllables (p. 156):
    PDE ME
    hide:hid hi-de(n):hid-de
    keep:kept ke-pe(n):kep-te
    sleep:slept sle-pe(n):slep-te
    hear:heard he-re(n):her-de

    So here, at least, we have some sort of an explanation for our stem-changing verbs that otherwise follow the convention of the dental preterite.

    If we combine this with the information berndf provided in post 99 of another thread that there were alternative versions of the English preterite, we have a possible explanation for many of these anomalies: sometimes things in life are just random.

    And so it would seem that despite phonological rules governing most formations of the weak preterite, there exist words whose preterite-formation rules are not universally set.

    From what I can tell, though, these do not follow a standard phonological pattern—burn can become burnt, but adorn doesn't become *adornt—; perhaps this is a sign that words are chosen randomly to have alternative preterites or that certain words have survived with both forms in tact since the processes responsible for the variations first acted on the phonology of the language.

    Very good stuff folks!

    JE
    __________
    Millward, C.M. (1996) A Biography of the English Language, 2nd ed. Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth.
     
  15. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Yes, that is my assumption as well (see #8 above).
     
  16. Walshie79 Junior Member

    Shropshire, UK
    English (British)
    With 'burn', I feel there is a distinction between intransitive past tense "burned" and transitive "burnt" in BrE; "the fire burned for two days" versus "he burnt the toast", at least in writing. The past participle is consistently 'burnt', however.
     
  17. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Maybe this is similar to what is mentioned in the link merquiades gave which states:


    I can't say I have such a distinction in my own speech, but I guess I just don't pay close enough attention to my speaking to know for sure.

    JE
     
  18. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I don't think I make this distinction either, but I wish I did. It's very precise.

     
  19. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    I realized today that I also produce [tʰɚ̃nt] for turned. Perhaps there is a pattern involving verbs ending in stressed [ɚ̃n]. Also, ruin gets a [t] in the preterite.

    There is something happening with verbs ending in /n/ and /l/ that allows some to take [t] and forces other to take [d]; adorned, for example, has [d] for me.

    JE
     

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