October 12th, 2007

Breaking Grammar News

Yesterday, I nearly dropped my oatmeal spoon when I opened up the front-page section of the Los Angeles Times to read this stunning headline: “How English adds the ‘ed’”


It is far too rarely that conjugation (of the non-romantic variety) makes headlines. (Although I have to say, the Times seems very amicably disposed toward language stories—in recent weeks I’ve read more than a couple about various languages that are slowly going extinct. It’s not uplifting, but at least it’s language-related.)


This story was particularly stellar, managing to include references to Beowulf, The Princess Diaries, Chaucer, Darwin, and marriage.  


Grammar researchers have found that they can compute the precise rate—okay, that’s gross, because it makes me think of math when I should be thinking of language, but whatever—at which irregular verbs become de-irregularized. (To put it simply: a verb used 100 times less frequently evolves 10 times as fast as its more commonly used cousins.) Examples: helped, which used to be holp (which I love and will insist on using from now on) and chided, which used to be chode (that one doesn’t please my ear so much).


A fun chart pulled from Nature magazine includes predicted half-lives of irregular verbs, and boldens the verbs that have since become regular—but doesn’t include how those now regularized verbs used to be irregular. Like the past tense of wreak I thought was still wrought—but according to the chart it’s been regularized. Bellow has been regularized, too—but I can’t figure out what the irregular conjugation would have been; ditto for milked, waded, baked, and smoked.


The half-life of “to be” is calculated at 38,800 years—so we’ve got plenty of time to get accustomed to whatever wacko regularization the public decides on.


The point isn’t the results of the research, though. It’s the fact that there is such a thing as grammar research. Those publicity-hound science people are always getting in the paper with their rocket launches and green fuels. It is about damn time the linguists and the writers get their day in the research spotlight! Let’s reach out a holping hand to the grammar researchers and linguists who are out there on the front lines—and not on the front pages as much as they should be. Up with grammar research!

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