Preterite peter-out: How the end beginned

Dark forces of regularisation smite irregular verbs

Those of you who like your English as God intended - complete with the inexplicable spellings and irregular verbs which cause such woe to students of our beloved mother tongue - will doubtless be alarmed at the news that the irregular preterite is heading for possible extinction as the forces of regularisation bring the errant past tense back into line.

That's according to a study by Harvard University mathematicians, which says that delights such as "began", "brought" and "stank" may in future be replaced by "beginned", "bringed" and "stinked".

To back their case, the researchers identified 177 irregular verbs used in Old English and tracked their use over the centuries from Beowulf to Harry Potter via The Canterbury Tales.

They found that the figure had been reduced to 145 by the 14th century, and the current lingo boasts just 98 - a paltry three per cent of all verbs.

The team says that of the 98, 15 will have evolved into regular verbs within the next 500 years. The preterites "very likely" to suffer the ignominious fate are "bade" (bidded) "shed" (shedded), "slew" (slayed), "slit" (slitted), "stung" (stinged) and "wed" (wedded).

Among those most likely to resist are "ate", "broke", "bought", "chose", "drew" and "drank".

The reason for some preterites' comparative robustness is because "verbs evolve and homogenise at a rate inversely proportional to their prevalence in the English language", as the Harvard blurb explains.

The team "computed the 'half-lives' of the surviving irregular verbs to predict how long they will take to regularise", and concluded: "The most common ones, such as 'be' and 'think', have such long half-lives (38,800 years and 14,400 years, respectively) that they will effectively never become regular. Irregular verbs with lower frequencies of use - such as 'shrive' and 'smite', with half-lives of 300 and 700 years, respectively - are much more likely to succumb to regularisation."

The researchers' findings are published in this week's Nature. ®

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