Thursday, February 03, 2005

On irregular verb conjugations

Thinking about the forsook/forsoke problem, two questions came to mind:

(1) suppose someone doesn't "know" the past tense of a verb that happens to be irregular. What makes them decide which verb's conjugate to make the analogy to - if they don't choose to go the regular-plural route? OK, let me make that more concrete. I have no idea whether I already *knew* that "forsook" was the past tense of "forsake" back in primary school, when I argued with my teacher about it. After all, I couldn't have been more than twelve. But it's not a very common word, so suppose I didn't. Of all the possible verb conjugations to choose, why that one? After all, there's at least four conjugations I could have followed:

bake - baked - baked (regular)
make - made - made
take - took - taken (the one "forsake" follows)
wake - woke - woken (the one Logos decided to follow)

Is it something to do with the frequencies of the conjugations? Or perhaps the verbs' semantic closeness to "forsake"? Though I don't see why "take" should be any closer than "wake" or "make". This reminds me of the example we looked at in historical linguistics class, of how the plural of "dwarf" morphed from "dwarfs" to "dwarves" on analogy with elf-elves, since they were so similar semantically. Anyway, on to question...

(2) Why is it that the past tense and past participle in English are so irregular, while the 3rdSgPres -s (as in "he teases", "she laughs") and the continuous -ing ("they were doing", "I was playing") are so regular? The only irregularities I can think of with -s are "he does" (vowel change), "he is" (rather than "bes") and "he has" (rather than "haves"), and I can't think of any irregularities with "-ing". But why? Are these conjugations something newer, that haven't had the time to get corrupted by morphological madness? Or have they, for some reason, never changed - i.e. there has never been another way to form the continuous, whereas for the past tense there've been any number of ways? But then you have to explain why those are so stable while past tenses are not. Interesting question, I can't think of a simple way to answer it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He sez?

8:24 AM  

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