Sunday, January 10, 2010

Language Change

When young children are learning English, they will apply general rules to words that are exceptions: I gived it to her. They have not heard adults use "gived" - they have likely heard "gave" hundreds of times. But their internalising of the rule that past tense in English is formed by adding -ed creates a pressure to force all verbs into the regular rule. There is a countering pressure that this word is an exception, and as they become more fluent, children learn that the exceptions sometimes fall into a separate pattern. Sing, sang. Give, gave. Come, came The past tense often changes the vowel to -a-. The past participles of these exceptions are the most varied and hardest to learn.

Keep that concept of opposing pressures in mind when thinking about language change.

I had the opportunity today to use the past participle of "thrive" and went immediately to "thriven," then paused. I have heard the word "thrived," I am sure. Could that be correct instead? I thrive, I throve, I have thriven. I thrive, I throve, I have thrived. I intuitively preferred "thriven," but also recognised it as the older form and wondered if I were keeping it as an archaism. I rolled the similar word strive around in my brain without much enlightenment.

OED says both are used. Other sources note that the older form is used more often in writing or in formal discourse. Notice the competing pressures here. "Thrived" follows the general rule of past tenses. Absent any counterpressure, the verb will go to that default setting: add -ed. Previous usage is that counterpressure. But as the word becomes less common, that pressure is weakened. Thrive, thriving; strive, striving still have some frequency in English. Throve, strove, and whatever-the-hell-the-past-participles-are is are much less common.

Why some verbs would remain common in all tenses while others ebb away outside the present tense is fun to think about. (To me, that's who.) One hundred years ago throve, thriven would definitely have been considered more proper. Now thrived is making inroads into both. The trend is clear: the older forms are going to lose. Language moves away from the unwieldy, and the downstream tenses of thrive have two things going against them. They are irregular, and they require two words where thrived will do for both.

Hast thou not seen such afore now?


Gringo said...

In a hundred years will we say "I drived the car?" Will there be cars?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I doubt we will say "I drived." Anything that is strong enough to have made its way into the Basic English that is spoken internationally will likely remain. But less common words might revert to regular declensions.

Of course, that is assuming we haven't developed instantaneous translation, or succumbed to some dread worldwide disease, or all learned to speak Chinese instead.

wheels said...

I doubt we'll all learn to speak Chinese, at least as it is spoken today. I like learning about languages, myself, and have written about it on my blog a few times.

In the second half of this post, I talk about a news article that talks about the pressures being placed on written Japanese by technology such as cellphones. I expect similar things to happen to written Chinese as technology makes inroads into that society. It may be worse for them, because Chinese has the additional complication of being a tonal language.

This other post discusses some issues with English a bit more, along with mentioning the reason we have certain issues in the English language.

Mike K said...

Have you read any of Steven Pinker's books ? He goes into the origin of irregular verbs and what they teach us about the brain. For example, Wend-Went, Send-Sent.