Thursday, December 01, 2005

Knit, knat, knate

Occasionally, I am overcome by a terrible temptation to conjugate regular verbs irregularly which is okay as long as it doesn't happen while I'm standing at a blackboard with forty students behind me copying down every (wrong) word as gospel truth. I just can't help feeling that the English language would be even richer if I could say things like "I knat you a jumper, do you like it?", or "He store at me as if I had two heads" or "the article was citten by five other authors". Of course children do it the other way round, they go through a phase where all verbs are conjugated regularly as in "I've bringed you a dead snail, Mummy" or "Tu veux t'assiser?" which E. still prefers to "Tu veux t'asseoir?" and I've come to quite like it too.

So, yesterday, when I reread the post just under this one, I paused for a second at the word "seeped" and wondered if perhaps the past tense shouldn't be "sept" as in "water sept in through the walls". The more I thought about it the better it sounded. Why, I wondered, is "seep" not an irregular verb?

Then, by one of those truly freaky coincidences that it is best not to dwell on (dwell, dwold, dwollen?), I stumbled on the answer. Like many people this week, I had just discovered the LearnOutLoud.com site, a veritable treasure trove of lectures and speeches in streaming video. So, late last night I settled down to watch Steven Pinker give a lecture about Words and Rules, and somewhere in the middle my ears pruck up as he explained that we say "keep, kept" but not "seep, sept" because, unlike keep, the verb seep was introduced into the English language after the "Great Vowel Shift" of the mid fifteenth century (before which a double e was pronounced in such a way as to require that -t sound at the end of the past tense.) If you find this sort of think fascinating, and you'd like to know more about Pinker's modified words-and-rules theory, I recommend listening to the whole lecture but if you don't have time to watch the whole thing, there's a short piece by Pinker on the same subject, here: The Irregular Verbs

*Isn't it strange how when one ultra-popular blog mentions a site, it is immediately taken up by lots of others and then everyone bookmarks it with furl or del.icio.us and it popularity grows exponentially. We really need a verb to describe this phenomenon. I suggest "to wildfire" as in "that site really wildfired this week". Whatever the word chosen, the chances are that it will be conjugated as a regular verb like all other recent neologisms eg. googled and spammed. Apparently, the last irregular past tense to be introduced into the (American) English language is "snuck", and that's a hundred years old.

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4 comments:

Antipodeesse said...

I licked your post very much Lesley, and it maked me laugh out loud.

Sarah Mackenzie said...

It's a me too moment. Me too!

I've never thought about "keep, kept" but not "seep, sept".

Language wallahs - such as yourself (and my husband)make me realise that I talk a language that I know nothing about! Verbs, tenses ... it's a whole long forgotten world

Language seems to have been much more interesting when we were little tribes of people living over the hill, at war with, and out of contact with, other little tribes

Wendy said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post...I love words..and the way kids make such cute mistakes. Although I correct my boys endlessly and Nathan is now getting the hang of the present perfect and the past simple...but Fabien still mixes them up and says things like "I have ated my veggies at school today".

Neil said...

Loved the subject matter and especially the manner in which you wrote (writed?) about it. There's a great show on BBC 2 at the moment which I'm sure you'd like called 'Broken News'. Basically a piss take of all the 24 hour news channels and the complete bollocks they talk!