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Date: 29/07/2014
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Who'da thinked it?

Irregular verbs are being drived to extinction. Thanks to Esmerelda, who bringed this piece to my attention:

The process beginned hundreds of years ago and bringed a huge change in our use of the language.

Now researchers believe more of the irregular verbs that make English such a rich and varied experience are heading for extinction.

In future, 'stank' will evolve into 'stinked', 'drove' will become 'drived' and 'slew' will turn into 'slayed', a team of linguists and mathematicians say. And if the simplification becomes really serious, 'begun' could change to 'beginned', 'brought' to 'bringed' and 'fell' to 'falled'.

The prediction comes from the first study of its kind into how irregular verbs have evolved in literature over the last 1,200 years.

Around 97 per cent of verbs in English are regular. That means in the past tense they simply take an '-ed' ending – so 'talk' becomes 'talked', and 'jump' becomes 'jumped'.

Irregular verbs, however, do their own thing. Some like 'wed' stay the same in the past tense while others like 'begin' take a different ending to become 'begun'.

The study, carried out at Harvard University, found that irregular verbs are under intense pressure to change into regular verbs as language develops.

The team identified 177 irregular verbs used in Old English and tracked their use over the centuries from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf to the latest Harry Potter novel.

By the 14th century, only 145 were still irregular and by modern times, just 98 remained.

The less commonly used they are, the more they are likely to change, the team reports today in the journal Nature. The scientists predict that 15 of the 98 irregular verbs in the study will have evolved into regular verbs within the next 500 years. Verbs that they say are very likely to change are: bade to bidded; shed – shedded; slew – slayed; slit – slitted; stung – stinged; wed – wedded.

Verbs that are less likely to change are: broke – breaked; bought – buyed; chose – choosed; drew – drawed; drunk – drinked; ate – eated.

There are some exceptions, that is examples of verbs going the other way, as I noted some time ago:

Mike appeared in court and pled guilty. (Hugh)

Over here we would say "pleaded", but I've seen enough LA Law to know that Americans say "pled". The irregularity of this verb has arisen by analogy with irregular verbs such as lead/led, or bleed/bled. Americans also say "dove", by analogy with "drove". They don't say "diven", however, or even "dove" as the past participle, whereas the past participle of "plead" is "pled", the same form as the preterite.

When Mike is dead, perhaps we should call him Moke.

Some commenters on the Evening Standard article are worried about the regularisation of our verbs:

What a horrible thought! Is this just because children today aren't taught to speak properly or encouraged to read enough to expand their vocabulary, or we as adults are too lazy to correct their incorrect grammar?

They shouldn't be. Steven Pinker - that's what he's called at the moment, but he used to be Panker - pointed out somewhere that seventy per cent of the time we use a verb it's an irregular one. The irregular verb is alive and well - for now. What may happen, however, is that preterite and past participle vowels merge. There is a lot of confusion between "drank" and "drunk", for example: "I drunk it."

Another Evening Standard reader comments ominously:

[I]t would be nice to lose irregular words if English is to remain a World language and flourish. If it was as regular as, say, Spanish, then it would be easier for others to learn.

Too bad. What next? We all speak Esperanto? Irregular verbs were banned in George Orwell's 1984 language Newspeak, however, and who's to say the EU hasn't thinked of doing the same?

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