Kieran McGovern considers why some verbs in English are so difficult for language learners to grasp and how they have changed (and continue to change) over time.
Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.
There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use.
So how have these tricky customers evolved? And why are they so central to English?
The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an interesting theory. He says that irregular verbs are “fossils of an Indo-European pre-historic language.” This had a regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.
Over time pronunciation changed. The “rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.”
Irregular verbs are notoriously difficult for language learners – native speakers struggle with them, too. It takes children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not ‘speaked’. Some never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything (as opposed to ‘wrote’). In fact many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by native speakers – ‘we was’, ‘they done’ etc. – involve irregular verbs.
The number of commonly used irregular verbs is declining. Some die of natural causes. Most modern children don’t know the word ‘cleave’ or that its past is ‘clove’. Nor are they likely to come across ‘abide’/’abode’. Other irregulars like ‘dream’ and ‘learn’ are gradually becoming regular. How long can ‘dreamt’ survive alongside ‘dreamed’?
As English becomes ever more international, the simpler verb forms become more dominant. Despite this, there is no danger of irregular verbs disappearing. Even before they learn to read most children can use 80 irregulars. They may not realise that ‘went’ originally came from ‘wend’ but nobody over the age of six seriously tries to replace it with ‘goed’.
The future is less promising for new irregular verbs. All new verbs in English are regular, including all new noun conversions: ‘I accessed’, ‘you emailed’. Even when an old verb takes a new meaning it uses a regular pattern – the army officer ‘rung’ his general but his men ‘ringed’ the city.
For a new irregular verb to survive it must offer some familiar pattern in how it works. One of the most recent irregulars is ‘sneak’/’snuck’, which you find in American English. In Britain we prefer ‘sneaked’ but ‘snuck’ is also logical because it follows the pattern of ‘strike’/’struck’.
What are your favourite irregulars? Which ones do you find hardest to remember?