The headline of the ScienceDaily article “Database Explains Strange Survival of Irregular Verbs” overstates matters a bit. Nobody fully understands how and why irregular verbs come into and out of existence, but then again until recent decades few scholars bothered to investigate the question. Now that’s starting to change.
Leading the way is the faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics at the University of Oxford. Their Project called “Autonomous Morphology in Diachrony: comparative evidence from the Romance languages” is exploring and making sense of the “organized nonsense” of verbs.
According to the Project’s website, the team is focusing on the analysis of the history of Romance languages and their changes over time in morphology (that is, how verbs inflect for tense, finitude, subject agreement, etc.)
Irregularities seem to have no purpose, but they continue to survive over time. Why?
ScienceNews interviewed Oxford’s Martin Maiden who put a major finding simply:
He [Maiden] said: ‘Many people will remember groaning at school when faced with irregular French or Spanish verbs and wondering why they were the way they were. Our work helps to explain why they, and their equivalents in many related languages, not only exist but are even reinforced and replicated over time.’
There is usually a good historical reason why irregularities appear in a language, Professor Maiden adds, but often the original causes disappear, leaving behind apparently inexplicable irregularities.
Quite often, subsequent generations of speakers simply eliminate these irregularities. ‘But what we have found is that an alternative strategy is to keep the irregularity yet seek to make its occurrence and distribution as predictable as possible, through spreading and various kinds of reinforcement of the irregular pattern’.
Some forms of the French verb mourir (to die) have the spelling ‘eu’ rather than ‘ou’ (for example je meurs — ‘I die’ — against nous mourons — ‘we die’. This difference is due to sound changes at an earlier stage of the language but the pattern of irregularity created by these changes then provides a template into which other kinds of irregularity, which cannot be explained by sound change, are attracted.
The irregular forms of the verb aller (to go, for example je vais — ‘I go’ — against nous allons — ‘we go’) can be shown to have followed this pattern.
Put simply, irregular verbs begin with sound changes that emerge for a “good historical reason,” then either fade out or spread to other verbs as a way of making the original mutation seem more predictable. I would say that it’s as if a language speaker’s mind rebels against irregularity and searches for a sense behind it, and sometimes goes so far as to spread the pattern. Of course, such a rebellion does in fact occur — but not so much in the mind of individual speakers but in intersubjective spaces.
I’m disappointed not to find more detail about what the researchers believe constitutes a “good historical reason,” because of my great interest in understanding what constitutes a good explanation for sound changes in languages and whether such changes may be regarded as part of a purposeful evolutionary pattern or if they are merely chaotic transformations.
One major finding is the rejection of the prevailing “morphomic ghetto” account of language changes, which holds that morphological developments are only to be defined as morphomic if all other explanations (e.g., phonological or semantic) can be ruled out. On the contrary, researchers found that “phenomena traditionally ascribed purely to phonological or semantic conditioning often contain an irreducibly morphological component.”
This and other findings of the Project will be published in a forthcoming book. And there’s hope that as data is collected in Oxford’s database more complete explanations can be found for language irregularities.
Some interesting discoveries of the research emphasize the underappreciated importance of Romanian languages in the evolution of Romance languages, and the finding that changes in Romance languages outside of Europe have influenced the overall language development (e.g., Canadian French has had an important influence on French as it is spoken in Europe).