Tuesday, December 27, 2005

think, thank, thunk

It's well known that the tendency over the history of English has been to simplify its verbal conjugation system, specifically by reducing the number of verb forms. As illustration, I have here to hand the book 501 Spanish Verbs, and if I open a page at random -- let's say I am interested in necesitar, "to need", a perfectly normal verb -- I can count 43 distinct verb forms inflected for person, number, and tense. And that's not counting compounds like he necesitado, "I have needed."

In English, we have:
need (I, you, we, they)
needs (he, she, it)


needed (all persons), also functions as participle

I count four forms -- two present, one for past (including participle), one for progressive. Did I forget any?

Even gnarly verbs in English don't have that many forms. An irregular verb like eat has only one additional form: eat; eats; eating; ate; eaten. A wackier verb, still pretty simple: think; thinks; thinking; thought. Still only four. Another: ring; rings; ringing; rang; rung. The star irregular verb is, as usual, to be, which has these: be; am; are; is; being; was; were; been.[1]

For further comparison, I just totted up some German verbs, and unless I am missing some forms (I wouldn't be surprised), it looks like in German, most verbs have about 11 forms. Rather more than our four or five, but still way simpler than latinate languages.

(Incidentally, if you're wondering how we can get by with such greatly simplified verb forms in English, it's because we have effectively excised the semantic component represented by a verbal inflection and transferred it to another word, such as a pronoun. Thus Spanish amo is I love, amas is you love -- they like inflection, we like not-inflection and pronouns. Spanish has pronouns, of course, but they're often optional. Our habit of preferring to use separate words instead of inflecting verbs -- which is to say, the tendency of English toward being an analytic language -- applies also to verbal tenses and moods. As in German, many of our past and all of our future verbal forms involve auxiliary verbs. Ditto subjunctive -- If he would have come, ...)

And the point of this is? Well, I was talking to a 12-year-old the other day, and the topic of swimming came up, and when the phrase have swum was floated (haha), my interlocutor did not believe that swum was a word. "I have swam," she insisted was the correct form. This was all the more surprising to me because this is an extremely well-read girl who regularly tackles texts several grade levels above her age. Yet she has as yet not learned the "correct" participial form for a verb that is by no means obscure.

This seems like evidence to me that the drive in English to reduce verb forms continues, albeit somewhat checked among those who have formally studied the language. Non-standard English has all sorts of examples where, as with our swim example, the simple past has taken over the participle and further reduced the number of forms -- I have went, I have ate, etc.[2]

It is of course in the vulgate where continued change will manifest, and one therefore is not surprised that speakers of non-standard English are in the vanguard of evolution. But when people who for the most part speak standard English are confused about things like the form of a participle, further evolution in English is snoofling around at the door.[3]

Lest any of us get to feelin' too smug, though, consider that even us speakers of more perfect English can find ourselves unsure of forms, at least till we run to our beloved reference works for rulings. Which is it, dragged or drug? Sneaked or snuck? And as noted here before, there's that perplexing to dive -- I dive, I dove, I have ___________ ? It will be the rare folk among us who can confidently roll out every form of every verb in English, and especially, who can do it based on instinct alone. The fact is that we "know" the correct forms of such verbs only because various "authorities" have made a decision for us and we have studied their rulings.

[1] It doesn't take advanced linguistics study to guess that the forms of to be are probably not tortured inflections of a single base verb; instead, our current forms are the result of smooshing together several verbs into a single to be.

[2] Sometimes the participle wins: I seen him.

[3] At this point, even among educated people it's hard to find someone who can explain the difference -- or heck, even bothers to distinguish -- lie and lay.


Bones said...

Yay for that post! I still get teased about insisting that "bring, brang, brung" was the present, past, and participle of "to bring." Ring, rang, rung -- why not?

Broschat said...

I've often lamented that it has been our language (English) that is becoming the lingua franca for the world, simply because I've felt that it is too complex. But, as you point out, as complex as it might be, it doesn't hold a candle to many of the other common world languages.

Anonymous said...

The "complexity" of some languages is actually not really all that complex when they're regular. Spanish may have 6 forms for every non-compound tense (which some languages like Galician do in a simple tense making for more forms) but it's far more regular. Some tense/mood combinations, like the past subjunctive in Spanish, are perfectly regular. Thus far in m experience with Korean, I've yet to find a truly irregular verb (they claim ha-da is, but since it is in half the verbs as an ending I see it more as a different class of verbs with a slightly different conjugation).

Though, I do agree that English is far too complex for lingua franca status, yet it appears it will attain it. It's not even the oddness of our grammar that makes it difficult, I think. We have so many alternate meanings for words it's amazing we get any kind of precise communication across. It's almost impossible to say a phrase without having it be interpretable in another light.

Brendan said...

You can lie about the matter if you lay someone, but not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Actually "I seen" comes from Scots ("Ah seen"). It's very common here in the SAE.

Anonymous said...

With respect for you all but if someone thinks that English language is hard, look after Romanian and Greek languages, u will be fascinated.