Jonny Nexus

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English is Stupid #1

One of the “charming eccentricities” of the English language is the way that verbs can be irregular. Regular verbs can be changed from present to past tense by adding “ed” to them. Lift, becomes lifted, kill becomes killed, and so on. But with irregular verbs, it’s pretty much anything goes. Sometimes, the vowel within the word changes. I run, I ran. I dig, I dug. I shit. I shat1.

And then there’s the bits where English goes totally off-piste. I go, I… went? And then you get the even more complicated bits when you take into account past simple and past participle2, such as sing, sang, sung. A linguist who’s studied the roots of English could no doubt tell you why this is, but I alas, am not such a linguist3.

But I recently came across a wonderful word where English doubles up on its stupidity. Imagine that the following past tense passage needs to be converted to present tense:

“I lift the pen. I write some words. I read the words.”

It would become:

“I lifted the pen. I wrote some worlds. I read the words.”

So that’s regular, irregular, and yes, irregular. Because read, pronounced “reed”, and read, pronounced “red”, are two words as different as lead and led, with the exact same change of vowel sound.

They’re just spelt the same way. Which is really, really stupid.

* * * * *

If you have any other examples, I’d love to hear them. And to the polyglots among you: English can’t be alone here, right? Do other languages display similar stupidity? And are there languages that aren’t similarly stupid, that actually appear to have some sort of overall design philosophy?

1There might be some who would claim that shit is a regular verb, and the the past tense of “shit” is “shitted”, as in “I shitted myself.” To them I can only say that sir you are an uncouth barbarian who does not deserve to be allowed near my language, and I will fight your dismissal of “shat” in favour of the abominable “shitted” with every fibre of my Anglo-Saxon soul for as long as fate allows me to live. Leave sir, and do not return.

2No, I don’t actually know what that is either. Given that I’m a product of the English education system between 1973 and 1987, at a time when “pupil centred learning” was at its height, my formal knowledge of grammar doesn’t go much beyond verbs being “doing words”.

3Like most of my fellow countryman, I am – shamefully – a monoglot. I recently spent a week in Istanbul, during which I managed to learn a grand total of one Turkish word: “fish”, which is the Turkish for “receipt”. Yes, I was there on business.

4 Comments

  1. Here’s a linguist!

    So, yes, every language is full of stuff like this. Not always in the morphology (word-formation), but every language has its share of wackiness like this.

    The particular sorts of wackiness you’re describing come from an essential tension between the gradual drift of pronunciation, which pulls words apart, and the desire humans have for consistent and regular systems, particularly when they use them rarely enough that they can’t remember the quirks.

    And so that’s the key thing: as a language drifts around in pronunciation-space, the most-commonly-used words will maintain their idiosyncrasies, because people use them a lot and remember them. And the less-commonly used ones will drift, but quickly get regularized again.

    So this is part of why some people, as you point out, say “shitted”—for them, “shat” has fallen below the frequency threshold necessary to maintain that irregularity, and so they start applying the regular fallback pattern.

    (That’s a all a bit of a simplification, mind, but good enough for a blog comment, I hope!)

    • Hi Kit,

      That’s more than enough for a blog comment, thanks!

      That makes a lot of sense. Would I be right in saying therefore that the irregular verbs (go / went, write / wrote etc) are older Anglo Saxon forms, and that the regular -ed suffix is a newer, post-Anglo Saxon thing?

    • Following on from that, if “-s” to pluralise is the “new” way of doing it, with the original method being “-en”, as in German, does it mean that there was a period – after “-s” was introduced – where we talking about oxen a lot, so much so that we retained the old method? (As with children and brethren).

      Or is that just a completely random oddity? 🙂

  2. pun the librarian

    September 30, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Hi,

    If you are indeed looking for some examples of odd spelling in english, check out of this video by Ed Rondthaler :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTjeoQ8gRmQ

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