What are all those letters we don’t say doing in the word knight? Why is talked the past tense of talk but sang is the past tense of sing? What’s up with m in whom and how come we eat beef but raise cow?
For Urbo, I wrote a meaty piece on such curiosities: “What The Oddities Of The English Language Can Teach Us About Its Complex History.”
Here’s a sample section, with insights from Kyle Gorman, my friend and a brilliant linguist. Elsewhere in the piece, I quote from another pal, Matthew Bauman, an amazing German scholar and instructor.
Talk, talked. Sing…sang?
Another place we can easily see English’s Teutonic (that is, Germanic) roots are in its verbs—those seemingly random ones that always trip us up and can make English hard to learn.
“Sing, sang, sung. That’s inherited pretty straightforwardly from Proto-Indo-European,” Gorman says. He’s speaking of a linguistic process called ablaut. We think of it as unusual, or irregular—as we call these verbal oddballs that change their vowels to mark the past tense or past participle (e.g., I sing the music, I sang the music, or the music was sung by me). But Gorman notes that this sort of vowel-hopping is actually pretty common in language.
As far as Indo-European languages are concerned, historically, there were a number of different patterns this vowel-hopping—this ablaut—could take. Drive/drove/driven and ride/rode/ridden follow one pattern. Throw/threw/thrown and grow/grew/grown follow another. Joining sing/sang/sung are the likes of swim/swam/swum and stink/stank/stunk, among others. “It just happens that a large number of these are well preserved in English and in German as well,” Gorman says.
It’s the exception—albeit one that took millennia to unfold—that became the rule. Germanic languages “developed this other alternative,” Gorman continues. “It uses a dental suffix, a T or D, to form the past of various forms. Talk, talked, anything of that form. That’s a Germanic innovation.” And that’s what became the normal way to form past tenses in English.
“These things do decay with time,” according to Gorman. The past tense of help used to be holp. Climb? Clamb. Broadly speaking, economy and convenience tend to tidy up inconsistencies and whittle away at complexities, regularizing help with helped and climb to climbed.
“However, for the most frequent ones, the decay is unbelievably slow,” Gorman explains. Which is why, in part, irregularities like sing/sang/sung hang on. And, very rarely, we muddle a perfectly ordinary verb like sneak, whose regular past is sneaked. We kept things interesting, though, by making it snuck.
But there were some outside forces at work that really sped up the decay: The invaders got invaded.
Read the rest of the article to see how this cliffhanger resolves.
Oh, and before I go, some bonus word facts:
The single-serve coffee maker, Keurig, has been in the news as people have been recording themselves smashing their machines in protest of the company’s decision to pull their ads from Sean Hannity’s show after he defended Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who’s been multiply and credibly accused of molesting children.
Keurig co-founder John Sylvan explained the name to the Atlantic:
Once he had a design that worked, he looked up the word excellence in Dutch—because “everyone likes the Dutch”—and he and his college roommate Peter Dragone named their new company Keurig.
Keurig is actually an adjective and means something more like “neat and tidy” or “proper.” The -ig is a suffix kin to English’s –y. Here’s a fun thread of some tweeters puzzling through Keurig’s name.