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I learned at school that irregular verbs are slowly disappearing from the language: "spelled" is more used than "spelt", "learned" than "learnt", etc. But recently, someone told me that some new irregular forms are created: "snuck" instead of "sneaked", etc.

Questions are: Is my understanding above correct? Can you cite other examples of newly created irregular forms (let's say during the 20th century)? Which phenomenon is numerically more significant?

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Your last question is subjective, rephrase it or delete it... :) –  Alenanno May 9 '11 at 12:25
    
Thanks, now it's perfect. :) –  Alenanno May 9 '11 at 12:29
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3 Answers 3

It's difficult to find evidence for saying that "irregular verbs are dying out" overall. There are:

  • a few cases, e.g. "spelt"/"spelled", "wrought"/"worked", where over the last few centuries there have been fluctuations/changes in the percentage use of the regular vs irregular alternative, with the regular alternative having ousted the irregular to differing extents;
  • a few cases where a more modern use of an older verb takes on a regular form ("it cost 10 dollars"->"they costed it out"; "it was put in"->"it was input[ted] incorrectly");
  • a few cases where the trend has gone the other way, in some cases fairly recently (e.g. "dived"/"dove", "sneaked"/"snuck"-- where "snuck" appears to be more recent in fact); also cf. "he hanged himself"->"he hung himself;
  • a few cases where one irregular form has or is being supplanted by another, but it's probably fair to say the verb is still "irregular" overall: "he span it"/"he spun it", "it hasn't run"/"it hasn't ran"

But if you look at the language overall, I don't think the number of irregular verbs has really changed in order of magnitude over the past few centuries, nor has there been any kind of structural change overall (the overall "types of paradigm allowed by English verbs" has essentially remained the same).

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I assume you mean wrought/wreaked? :) –  psmears May 9 '11 at 14:09
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@psmears: Someone is going to miss your smiley, and correct you. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 17:18
    
Steven Pinker says Old English had more than twice as many irregular verbs as we do today. And When new verbs enter English...the regular rule has first dibs on them. Finally, as the exception proving the rule, he says A century ago, some creative speaker must have been impressed by the pattern in stick-stuck and strike-struck, and that is how our youngest irregular, snuck, sneaked in. The remaining ones may be diehards, but I think overall "irregular verbs are dying out". –  FumbleFingers Jan 22 '13 at 22:15
    
@FumbleFingers This is true, but the reduction in irregular verbs since Old English hasn't been gradual-- essentially, as the inflectional system of English broke down generally, this was accompanied by a loss of irregularities in the root of so-called "strong" verbs (and other changes but that's the cause of the major shift). But this all happened over a relatively short space of time-- for as long as English has been what we ostensibly recognise as "Modern English", I really don't think we can say that there's been an 'order of magnitude' shift in the number of irregular verbs. –  Neil Coffey Jan 23 '13 at 2:19
    
Incidentally, I would extend this observation somewhat-- over the past 500 years or so, there really hasn't been much in the way of 'major, systemic' shifts in English at all. –  Neil Coffey Jan 23 '13 at 2:21
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The Oxford English Dictionary says of "snuck": "pa. tense and pple. also (orig. and chiefly U.S.) snuck.". It gives an instance of "snuck" from 1887.

So "snuck" is an innovation, though in the US it's older than the 20th century. (Like "dove", from 18th C in the US: the first time I encountered "dove" as the past of "dive" in an American source, I was genuinely confused, wondering where pigeons came into it).

I think it's quite rare for new irregular forms to be created, though I can't point to any reference; what has happened a number of times in the history of the language is that two forms have been in contention, and the strong ('irregular') form has eventually won.

I'm thinking particularly of "dug", where you find "digged" in older texts. (However, the OED says that the past participle was always "dug", and what has happened is that this has ousted the original past. It is unusual, though to find a word with a weak past and strong past participle, so I suspect that both forms were there from the outset).

[Edited: I had misinterpreted the OED entry as saying that "snuck" was the original form.]

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If you do an Ngram for snuck/sneaked, it appears that snuck was virtually unknown before 1910 or so. So even in the U.S. it's a recent innovation, although much less recent than in the U.K. I think this is indeed an example of a new irregular form being created. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 12:48
    
@Peter: You're right, and I was misinterpreting the OED comment. Answer edited. –  Colin Fine May 9 '11 at 13:56
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What I have noticed is that long vowels tend to become short and exceptions usually are caused by the mouth just trying to match mouth movements or just trying to avoid difficulties. For example, 'hear' becomes /hurd/ because going from the mouth of 'hear' to 'hear' followed by 'd' is too difficult. Therefore, shortening the vowel helps the mouth match to the 'd' sound. People naturally want to avoid the verbal gymnastics and make one sound comfortably move to the next sound. 'Digged' does not have a terribly difficult transition but the short u is just easier. The same applies to 'sneaked' becoming 'snuck.' In the end, whatever is easier for the mouth is going to be the change.

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