Irregular Verbs Don’t Like Us

Nobody likes irregular verbs. When it comes to learning a new language, these verbs dance to their own drummer, running roughshod over all of the conjugation rules you worked so hard to memorize. Even native speakers sometimes have trouble with them.

As Dr. Spock would say:

“Humans make illogical decisions. So, why do these “illogical” verb forms persist in the language? New research from Oxford University provides us with some clues toward the answer. In a write-up of the study published on the Science Daily website”

Professor Martin Maiden adds:

“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.”


The Oxford team created a database encompassing all of the irregular verbs in Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. They found that irregular verbs likely started for a logical reason, such as the words having their origins in a different language or being pronounced differently. Logically, you would think that over time, the verbs’ conjugations would change to become closer to the norm in the language, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Professor Maiden explained to Science Daily that after analyzing the database:

“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.”

This explains why irregular verbs often come in groups. For example, in Spanish, the conjugation pattern for the irregular verb “conocer” also applies to other irregular verbs ending in -cer, like crecer, desconocer and nacer.

1 reply
  1. Rick Webb
    Rick Webb says:

    Sturtevant’s paradox: Sound change is regular, but produces irregularity;
    analogy is irregular, but produces regularity. Irregular verbs are often the result of historical sound changes to which other irregularities are added…

    Reply

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