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.