Database explains strange survival of irregular verbs

Jun 22, 2011
Database explains strange survival of irregular verbs

(PhysOrg.com) -- An historical study of the development of irregular verbs in the hundreds of Romance languages including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan has revealed how these structures survive. Experts have also examined why they are learned by successive generations despite ‘making no sense’ or, apparently, having any function in the language.

Oxford University has published an online database displaying the irregularities of the verb systems of 80 Romance languages and dialects - those that developed from Latin - to highlight the research. The database is useful to specialists and others with an interest in Romance languages.

Professor Martin Maiden of Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics Philology & Phonetics and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages led the four year study which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

He said: ‘Many people will remember groaning at school when faced with irregular French or Spanish verbs and wondering why they were the way they were. Our work helps to explain why they, and their equivalents in many related languages, not only exist but are even reinforced and replicated over time.’

There is usually a good historical reason why irregularities appear in a , Professor Maiden adds, but often the original causes disappear, leaving behind apparently inexplicable irregularities.

Quite often, subsequent generations of speakers simply eliminate these irregularities. ‘But what we have found is that an alternative strategy is to keep the irregularity yet seek to make its occurrence and distribution as predictable as possible, through spreading and various kinds of reinforcement of the irregular pattern'.

Some forms of the French verb mourir (to die) have the spelling ‘eu‘ rather than ‘ou’ (for example je meurs – ‘I die’ - against nous mourons – ‘we die’. This difference is due to sound changes at an earlier stage of the language but the pattern of irregularity created by these changes then provides a template into which other kinds of irregularity, which cannot be explained by sound change, are attracted.

The irregular forms of the verb aller (to go, for example je vais – ‘I go’ - against nous allons - ‘we go’) can be shown to have followed this pattern.

Professor Maiden believes that the Romance languages provide ‘an extraordinarily rich and detailed field for the study of how and why language changes’.

‘Our research has opened up numerous new avenues of investigation, which we are already actively pursuing, and has shown that many Romance varieties too often neglected in mainstream Romance linguistics (such as Romanian or the French spoken on the Atlantic coast of Canada) have fascinating properties which we want to explore further.’

Professor Maiden, John Charles Smith, also of Oxford’s faculties of linguistics and modern languages, and Marc-Olivier Hinzelin of the University of Hamburg are now working on a book detailing the research findings and their significance. The Romance Verb: Autonomous Morphology in Paradigm Change is due to be published next year by Oxford University.

Explore further: Color and texture matter most when it comes to tomatoes

Related Stories

Looking beyond English

May 05, 2011

In fall 2008, Daniel Ginsberg, an English as a Second Language teacher at a public high school in Malden, Mass., approached MIT professor Wayne O’Neil asking about incorporating linguistics into his curriculum ...

All viruses 'can be DNA stowaways'

Nov 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- 'Fossil viruses' preserved inside the DNA of mammals and insects suggest that all viruses, including relatives of HIV and Ebola, could potentially be ‘stowaways’ transmitted from ...

Shape-shifting sugars pinned down

Jan 10, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Oxford University scientists have solved a 50-year-old puzzle about how, why or indeed if, sugar molecules change their shape.

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Recommended for you

Color and texture matter most when it comes to tomatoes

Oct 21, 2014

A new study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), evaluated consumers' choice in fresh tomato selection and revealed which characteristics make the red fruit most appealing.

How the lotus got its own administration

Oct 21, 2014

Actually the lotus is a very ordinary plant. Nevertheless, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) a complex bureaucratic structure was built up around this plant. The lotus was part of the Imperial Household, ...

What labels on textiles can tell us about society

Oct 21, 2014

Throughout Chinese history, dynastic states used labels on textiles to spread information on the maker, the commissioner, the owner or the date and site of production. Silks produced in state-owned manufacture ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hush1
not rated yet Jun 23, 2011
Well, there is still time.
'Autonomous' might not be the 'perfect' word for the rest of the title.