Monday, November 01, 2010

Not so irregular as one might imagine

kw: words, english language

An interest of mine that has been neglected thus far is words and how they work. Many years ago, I had sufficient free time to gather and categorize about 100,000 words, beginning with the construction of my own spelling dictionary but going quite a bit farther. Along the way, I found that there are two conflicting ways "word" is used.

Most of the time, "word" means a string of letters with a particular meaning and sound. In this usage, "start" and "started" and "starting" are thought of as different words, as are "hurricane" and "hurricanes". When one studies languages, however, "start" is considered a word that occurs in different forms due to inflection, as guided by the historical "rules" of grammar. Children learn to say, "Today I START, yesterday I STARTED, and I have often STARTED before." They also learn that while you and I START, he, she and it STARTS. Take off the ED, the ING or the S, and we have the "root word".

Every time I studied a language, whether Latin or French or Japanese, I was told that they were more "consistent" than English in some regard. This came to mind recently, and I decided to do a little checking. After all, I have my word-usage databases, lying fallow for half my life.

So today I'll consider English regular verbs. Some wags say there aren't any, which is what makes English hard to learn. My verb tables show a different picture. They contain the conjugations for 6,753 roots, which expand into about 33,000 "words". "Start", for example, produces STARTS, STARTED, STARTING, and STARTER (the latter is the -er noun form, which nearly every verb has. That is one reason there are more nouns than verbs).

START is an example of the most common of English verbs, in which the past tense and past participle forms are produced by appending ED. About 40% of English verbs work this way. Another near-40% work by simply adding D to words that already end in a vowel, such as CHASE. There are a few minor ways of appending a D or ED while deleting or doubling a final letter, that bring the total to 95% of all English verbs. If we treat English another inflected language, the two methods (adding ED or D) would be the "first conjugation" and "second conjugation" of English verbs. the other ways of adding the D sound would be considered variants. Then, even if you call all other verb forms "irregular", they total only 5% of English verbs. That is pretty small, smaller than the number of French or German irregular verbs!

I'll defer to another day writing of verbs that show other patterns, and thus could be grouped as third and successive conjugations. A final quibble while I close for the day: The Wikipedia article Verbs uses "write" for its examples. "Write" is an example of a much less common conjugation, using the pattern WRITE, WROTE, WRITTEN, plus WRITES, WRITING, and WRITER. A more regular verb such as "jump" or "start" or "create" would be a much better choice.

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