Sunday, August 23, 2009

Regular Irregularity in English Verbs

Background & Objectives
English belongs to the Germanic group of languages descended from Proto-Indo-European. One of the characteristic features of Old Germanic was its utilization of root vowel inflections to indicate changes in verb tense. While modern English makes use of a simpler suffixing system (e.g. call-ed, phone-d, etc.), verbs with irregular vowel inflections still survive for many of the oldest and most basic activities known to man, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, sitting, standing or swimming. This means that even the most elementary of students soon have to get down to the nitty-gritty of committing them to memory and I would very much like to facilitate this process.
Unfortunately, since English orthography has undergone comparatively few reforms in the last 500 years, it fails to reflect the sometimes inconsistent developments in educated pronunciation that have taken place over the same period. Both mono- phthongal and diphthongal root vowel shifts have endowed modern English with a far greater variety of irregular verb inflections than one finds in other Germanic languages. The verb conjugational patterns of, for example, German or Swedish seem to be much more easily categorized and memorized than those of English. As a consequence, and much to the frustration of overseas learners, most English dictionaries and grammar books seem content merely to provide lengthy alphabetical listings of irregular verbs in an appendix at the back. Surprisingly few attempts appear to have been made to group together verbs of clearly common conjugation for faster and more effective memorization.
This is the gap I have set out to fill with this short survey, the results of which are a little surprising. In spite of the fact that we at the end of my analysis are left with 42 irregular verbs displaying seemingly unique pronunciation patterns, more than 150 others have actually been found to be in good company with other verbs. This means they can be remembered almost as effectively as a nursery rhyme.
From left to right in the tables the verbs are shown in their infinitive/present, simple past and past-participle forms. In those cases where more than one past tense form is presented, the one in brackets is generally less common, especially if it is shown in italics. Literary and archaic forms, included here to provide a historical perspective, are always indicated in thin italicised text.
Sometimes a variant has one specific application (e.g. the nautical hove instead of everyday heaved), and so caution is advised and the student should refer to a dictionary for further details. Here such variants are shown in bright red.
In cases where one irregular verb also forms the root in another (e.g. give in forgive), usually only the basic verb is included here, unless there happens to be an accepted past-tense variant for the derivative (e.g. cast and forecast/forecasted). The phonetic symbols used here represent the British English RP or received pronunciation standard which, for example, is spoken by BBC World Service newsreaders or members of the Royal Family.
This survey of regular irregularity in English verbs does not in any way claim to be complete. Rather it should be seen as an attempt to break with tradition in order to facilitate more rapid memorization of irregular verbs in English. This I hope will be to the benefit of students around the world.

General Overview of Identified Verb Inflections              
Conjugation 1    [aI] > [aP] > [aP]    find-found-found      
Conjugation 2    [aI] > [I] > [I]    bite-bit-bitten      
Conjugation 3    [aI] > [@P] > [I]    write-wrote-written      
Conjugation 4    [aI] > [O:] > [O:]    buy-bought-bought      
Conjugation 5    [e] > [e] > [e]    send-sent-sent      
Conjugation 6    [e] > [e] > [@U]    swell-swelled-swollen      
Conjugation 7    [e] > [Q] > [Q]    get-got-got      
Conjugation 8    [e] > [@P] > [@P]    tell-told-told      
Conjugation 9    [eI] > [eI] > [eI]    pay-paid-paid      
Conjugation 10    [eI] > [@U] > [@U]    break-broke-broken      
Conjugation 11    [eI] > [U] > [eI]    take-took-taken      
Conjugation 12    [e@] > [O:] > [O:]    wear-wore-worn      
Conjugation 13    [I] > [{] > [{]    sit-sat-sat      
Conjugation 14    [I] > [{] > [V]    sing-sang-sung      
Conjugation 15    [I] > [eI] > [I]    give-gave-given      
Conjugation 16    [I] > [I] > [I]    build-built-built      
Conjugation 17    [I] > [O:] > [O:]    think-thought-thought      
Conjugation 18    [I] > [V] > [V]    win-won-won      
Conjugation 19    [i:] > [e] > [e]    meet-met-met      
Conjugation 20    [i:] > [@U] > [@U]    speak-spoke-spoken      
Conjugation 21    [i:] > [O:] > [O:]    teach-taught-taught      
Conjugation 22    [@U] > [@U] > [@U]    show-showed-shown      
Conjugation 23    [@U] > [u:] > [@U]    blow-blew-blown      
Conjugation 24    [u:] > [Q] > [Q]    shoot-shot-shot      
Conjugation 25    [3:] > [3:] > [3:]    burn-burnt-burnt      
Conjugation 26    [-] > [-] > [-]    cut-cut-cut      
42 truly irregular verbs!           
I have identified the following 26 groups of irregular English verbs as having some form of shared root-vowel inflection. Although they are not officially recognized, I refer to them here as conjugations:

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