Vowels in irregular verbs in English

Dec 5, 2011 by

BY FREDERICK ARN HANSSON (Continuing Studies, “The Glamour of Grammar”)

One of the reasons I took this class was my confusion about what the grammar rules were. There seemed to be the set that my grade school taught, those that my friends used and finally a group of words that I always stumbled over even though I “knew” the rules. I managed to get through college (undergrad and post) without ever taking another English class, in part because I was so baffled by grammar that I avoided the subject. What I’ve learned over the past ten weeks has allowed me to make strides in my understanding of our language and its usage. Of the many things that baffled me through the decades, one that I have revisited many times is the usage of -ed to make verbs past tense. Why did some words add an -ed whilst others changed the vowel? Why was I taught hang was made past tense by spelling hung yet everyone around me said hanged? Why do we have “irregular” verbs?

Our second, fourth and fifth classes covered parts of this problem for me. First was understanding the attempt to ‘Latinize’ English words. We talked about a Language Clock and how over a period of thousands of years all languages move from Fusional to Isolating to Agglutinative to Fusional. While English is more Isolating on the Language Clock, Latin, since it is a dead language, is perpetually stuck at Fusional. Fusional languages normally change the suffix to change tense or gender. The adding an -ed suffix to English grew during the Middle Ages, whereas prior to that English, or our Anglo-Saxon and other Nordic roots changed the vowel to change the tense. So how did we get there?

The Roman Empire collapse of 476 left a power vacuum that would eventually be filled by the Catholic Church. By the eleventh century the Catholic Church had spread throughout Europe, made possible by the growth of the parish system. Everybody living in a town or village in Western Europe had a local church. Having a large system of churches spread over thousands of miles with differing languages required a common language to keep information in sync and religious practices consistent. The lingua franca for the church was Latin.

The advent of the twelfth century was a time of translations of ancient volumes of books from the Arabic libraries. Particularly sought after was classical knowledge. Since the church clergy had the ability to read, write and communicate over distances, this responsibility fell to the church, as illiterate kings and princes relied totally on the clergy (Burke, 1995).

The development of the printing press caused the western world to change again. Cities with presses published Bibles in their native tongue. Those first printing centers determined what version of the future national language would survive, giving the vernacular permanence. It also standardized spelling and grammar rules that were heavily edited by the few learned individuals who spent their lives steeped in Latin grammar. Because so much knowledge was regained from the Arabic translations of the old Roman Empire, there was wonder for all things Roman. So Latin was considered the model language for how proper grammar should function. If a vulgar language like English was to be standardized, Latin grammar rules were the ideal to help with standardization.

Within Shakespeare’s own writings helpe/holp “Our own hands have holp to make” (Henry IV, 1.3.12), evolved to help/helped a few years later. This helped explain how Latin was fused onto English but what are the tense rules for what we call today the “irregular” verbs?

So “irregular” verbs preceded the standardization and resisted the transformation of fusionally adding an -ed to the end of the word to change the tense. What are the rules for our few hundred remaining nonstandard verbs if someone wants to
change the tense?

My first clue was in the “doubly words”, as they exposed a pattern of sounds that move generally from the front of the mouth with the jaw open slightly (close/front) for the first vowel to the throat with the lips less rounded (open/back) for the second vowel. Using the IPA vowel chart the double words initial sounds starts in the upper left corner and migrates to the lower left, close/front to open/back. This pattern continues over the centuries from older combinations like riff-raff (1400s) and tick-tack (1550) to new words such as ping-pong (1900).

Tick-tack: ˈtɪkˌtæk close/front, open/front
Ping-Pong: ˈpɪŋˌpɔŋ close/front, open/back
Riff-raff: ˈrɪfˌræf close/front, open/front
Mish-mash: ˈmɪʃˌmɑʃ close/front, open/back
Flim-flam: ˈflɪmflæm close/front, open/front
Ding-dong: ˈdɪŋˈdɒŋ close/front, open/back
Chit-chat: ˈtʃɪttʃæt close/front, open/front
Rick-rack: ˈrɪkˌræk close/front, open/front
Wing-ding: ˈwɪŋdɪŋ close/front, close/front

There is also a very consistent pattern for words that connote ‘me-here-now’ that tend to have higher and more forward vowels than words than connote distance from ‘me’. Again we see the same upper left (close/front) migration of vowels for the ‘me-here-now’ words to the lower right corner (open/back) of the IPA chart for the ‘you-far-past/future’ words:

Me vs. you: Mi, ju close/front, close/back
Friend or foe: frɛnd, fәʊ close/front, close/back
This and that: ðɪs, ðæt close/front, open/front
Near vs. far: nɪ(ә)r, fɑː(r) close/front, open/back
Good, better, best: gʊd, ˈbɛtә(r), bɛst/ close/back, close/middle, close/front
Present, past, future: ˈprɛzənt, pæst, ˈfjuːtʃə(r) close/front, open/front, close/back

I expect we should find the same correlation in our irregular verbs with the present tense being more close/front and the past tense being more open/back. I started with a sample of 15 verbs that demonstrate two word tenses:

Teach, taught: tiːtʃ, tɔːt close/front, open/back
Fight, fought: faɪt, fɔːt close/front, open/back
Say, said: seɪ, sɛd close/front, open/front
Drive, drove: draɪv, drәʊv close/front, middle/back
Dare, durst: dɛә(r), dɜːst close/front, open/central
Fall, fell: fɔːl, fɛl middle/back, open/front
Give, gave: gɪv, geɪv close/front, close/front
Run, ran: rən, ræn middle/central, open/front
Wind, wound: waɪnd, waʊnd close/front, close/back
Speak, spoke: spiːk, spəʊk close/front, close/back
Hang, hung: hæŋ, hʌŋ open/front, open/back
Is, was: ɪz, wɒz close/front, open/back
Lead, led: liːd, lɛd close/front, middle/front
Work, wrought: wɜːk, rɔːt close/front, middle/back
Sit, sat: sɪt, ˈsæt close/front, open/front

Of my sample of two word tenses, the present tense was close/front 87% of the time and 93% being either close and/or front. The past tense selection wasn’t as high as I expected as only 20% were both open/back but fully 87% were either open and/or back. Like the “doubly” and ‘me-here-now’ words there is a clear pattern of migration of the vowel sound in the same direction; vowels are chosen to represent a movement of time away from us.

I next looked at those irregular verbs that had three changes in tenses to see if the pattern continued. My sample:

Do, did, done: duː, dɪd, dʌn close/back, close/front, open/back
Bear, bore, borne: bɛɚ, bɔː(ɹ), bɔːn middle/front, open/back, open/back
Swear, swore, sworn: ˈswɛәɻ, ˈswoɻ, ˈswoɻn middle/central, close/back, close/back
Drink, drank, drunk: dɹɪŋk, dræŋk, drʌŋk close/front, open/front, open/back
Fly, flew, flown: flaɪ, flʊə, ˈfloʊn open/front, middle/central, close/back
Hide, hid, hidden: haɪd, /hɪd, ˈhɪd(ә)n open/front, close/front, close/front
Tread, trod, trodden: tɹɛnd, tɹɑd, ˈtɻɔdəәn open/front, open/back, open/back
Lie, lay, lain: laɪ̯, leɪ, lein open/front, close/central, close/front
Stink, stank, stunk: stɪŋk, stæŋk, stɒŋk close/front, open/front, open/back
Smite, smote, smat: smaɪt, smәʊt, smæt close/front, middle/back, open/front
Sing, sang, sung: sɪŋ, sæŋ, sʌŋ close/front, open/front, open/back
Swim, swam, swum: swɪm, swæm, swʌm close/front, open/front, open/back
Steal, stole, stolen: stiːl, ˈstɔl, ˈstəʊlən close/front, open/back, middle/central
Begin, began, begun: bɪˈɡɪn, bIˈɡæn, beˈgun close/front, close to open/front, middle to close/central to back

The migration of the vowel sounds for drink, drank and drunk, /ɪ/ to /æ/ to /ʌ/ (green), and stink, stank and stunk, /ɪ/ to /æ/ to /ɒ/ (red) are illustrated below:

There are far fewer thrice tenses. I could only find only fourteen combinations of present, simple past and past participle tenses. While the percentages do vary, they strikingly follow the same pattern. The present tense has the vowel being the predicted close/front sound occurs only 50% of the time; 93% being either close and/or front. The past participle vowel sound had a higher correlation than the previous chart, with 50% being open/back and 79% were either open and/or back. Also 50% of the simple past tense sat somewhere near the middle/central of the vowel chart.

What also struck me was that there was a second qualifier that was being used, as nearly a third of the past tense words ended with either a wn or n, and another quarter ended with a t, when the present tense word originally didn’t. I could only find 6 infinitives ending with an n out of 120 irregular verbs. One of those exceptions was run & ran, and those two were also counter to most other irregular verbs as the word migrates from middle/central to open/front. With time maybe those exception could be explained, since the tendency for close/front to open/back is very strong. If I look at run in the Oxford English Dictionary the spelling varies from the early Middle Ages rayne, rine, ryne, rynn, to the 1500s rinne, rynne, to the 1600s rin, ryn, suggesting that the vowel was originally pronounced closed/front. If the earlier version of run was pronounced closed/front then the migration pattern still holds.

Finally I could find only 17 irregular verbs that have the same spelling regardless of tense. While there is a preference for closed 65% as opposed to open (11 to 6), front 71% to central & back (12 to 2 & 3), the striking observation is the t endings for 82% of the words and the only alternative ending is a d.

Cut: kʌt open/back
Hit: hɪt close/front
Hurt: hɜːt open/central
Let: lɛt open/front
Bid: bɪd close/front
Burst: bɜːst open/central
Cast: kæst open/front
Cost: kɔst open/back
Fit: fɪt close/front
Set: sɛt open/front
Quit: kwɪt close/front
Wet: wɛt open/front
Slit: ˈslɪt close/front
Shut: ʃʌt open/back
Spread: spɹɛd open/front
Shed: ʃɛd open/front
Rid: ˈrɪd close/front

This exercise has left me with a basic understanding how irregular verbs got to be considered as such, and what rules they seemed to be governed by.

Considering that English is moving away from fusional, it would be fun to predict what sounds some words could transform into. So if I took smile and transformed it into smale or smule somehow I’m just not ready.

Then again smale was already taken for ‘small’: c1450 Chaucer Bk. Duchess 296 Smale foules a gret hep..had affrayed [v.r. affrayed, afraied] me out of my slep Thorgh noyse and swetnesse of her song.


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