the happy linguist

those oh, so pesky irregular verbs

People often say that languages aren’t logical and that’s why they’re so hard to learn. I disagree, at least when it comes to the languages I can speak.

French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese all come from Latin, a language that was very logical and very structured. There was a set of rules that governed Latin and you could use the rules to make a sentence that would let you say whatever you could imagine.

Over time, Latin was taught to people all over the Roman Empire, and some people learnt it better than others. The Roman Empire at that time spanned most of Western Europe including what is now known as Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. In each of these regions, the Latin language was taught but sometimes people would make errors, forgetting rules or even changing the rules. Eventually, their children would learn the errors as correct language and Latin started to change. This non-standard form of Latin became known as Vulgar Latin. In one region, Vulgar Latin changed so much it developed into a separate language called Spanish, in another region it changed and became French. As a collective, we still call French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian “Romance Languages” because they originated from the Roman Empire.

Even though the languages changed, they still contain a vast number of the rules that existed in Latin. Most of the language is well structured and organised so that if you know the rules, you can speak the language. Where the rules have gone a little awry is where people had trouble learning them, but once you accept that there are a few discrepancies here and there, you can see that languages are logical.

A lot of people find learning languages hard because they don’t know about these rules and the structures that the language they’re learning follows (some language courses actively avoid even mentioning these rules, or group them together in a little section at the very end of the course, never really explaining what they are or what they do). So, these rules can sometimes put people off when they learn a language but they needn’t be feared. In fact, they make life so much easier because it means everybody is using the language in the same way.

A lot of the time, however, people, even after learning the rules, say that languages are illogical. This is usually because they come across the dreaded “irregular verbs”.

Irregular verbs are verbs that don’t follow the rules and therefore make life a little more complicated. Most languages have a few irregular verbs, English certainly has many.

For example, there is a rule in English that says if you want to talk about the past tense, you should add the letters “ed” to the end of a verb.

I watch TV - I watched TV

I walk to school - I walked to school

I listen to music - I listened to music

This rule seems pretty simple, but I remember one time I was teaching English to a group of Spanish people and I explained the rule to them. At first, they were delighted to learn about how easy English is and then I gave them a few example sentences.

I call Mary - I called Mary

I wash the car - I washed the car

I play tennis - I played tennis

“Wonderful!” they said, amazed at how easy English is. Then I asked them to think of some example sentences themselves, and this is what they gave me:

I eat the pizza - I eated the pizza

(Oh, actually, ‘eat’ becomes ‘ate’ in the past)

I speak English - I speaked English

(Oh dear, ‘speak’ becomes ‘spoke’)

I see the ocean - I seed the ocean

(Well, ‘see’ becomes ‘saw’)

I drink wine - I drinked wine

(drank!)

I go to church - I goed to church

(I don’t know what to say; I’m sorry I lied about the rule. ‘Go’ becomes ‘went’!)

By this point, they didn’t believe me at all. They said there are more verbs in English that don’t follow the rule than do follow the rule.

So, you see in English we have many irregular verbs, and the best thing to do with irregular verbs is put them in their own little group and learn them separately.

Other languages have irregular verbs too and it often seems like a pain to have to learn them all. Personally, I quite like the irregular verbs in the languages I speak; they have their own little personalities and once I’ve mastered them, I feel like I have made a new friend. In some ways, I even think the irregular verbs help us to learn more of the language. It can be easy to get lost in the giant collection of verbs that exist in any language, and when all the verbs follow the same pattern and are governed by the same rules, it can make us lazy and we're likely to glaze over them without really taking them in. However, the odd irregular verb here and there gives us something to focus on and helps to break up the monotony.

So, next time you feel overwhelmed by all the irregular verbs in your foreign language, just be grateful they are there to spice things up a little. If every verb was regular, it would get pretty dull, in my opinion.