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In English, there are three suppletive adjectives: good, bad and far. Their comparative and superlative forms derive from different stems, i.e., we have best instead of *goodest, worse instead of *badder and so on. Do linguists have an explanation for why suppletion occurred only for these three adjectives? And, more specifically, why good and bad?

It seems that there is something special about good and bad, because in other European languages, the corresponding adjectives are also suppletive. But, since the comparative and superlative forms are not cognate across the subfamilies, the process must have occurred independently in each one.

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Related: Are there other verbs like "be" and "go"?. If you check the link in the answer there's also some other info about suppletion. –  Alenanno Aug 14 '11 at 12:14
    
There's also next, which I believe is the superlative form of nigh. –  Joe Fawcett Aug 16 '11 at 11:44
    
@JoeFawcett, I didn't know that. Is it felt as a superlative by native speakers? –  Otavio Macedo Aug 16 '11 at 12:12
    
No, although it's also true in other languages (not as a suppletive though). For example in Italian prossimo is often used for 'next' (to serve the following person waiting in a queue for example) and means nearest. –  Joe Fawcett Aug 16 '11 at 12:42

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As far as I know, irregularity correlates to frequency of use: as a paradigm ( / set of related words) is more commonly used, it will be less regular on average. Suppletion is an (extreme) type of irregularity, and so it is more common with frequently used words.

The most common adjectives and adverbs in all languages I know have more suppletion than their less common counterparts (good v. well). Pronouns and common verbs are very frequent in many languages, and they are also often suppletive to various degrees, or at least very irregular (cf. I v. me and am v. be).

The reason is probably that regular paradigms are easier to remember. If you have a certain word with old forms and new forms, and this word in not very frequent, you are more likely to forget some of the forms, and iron out some irregular features. But if you use the irregular forms every day, you are more likely to "remember" them, they will be more strongly rooted in the linguistic network of your brain, whatever that may be.

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Right. So, should we expect to find competing forms for other English adjectives in historical records? Forms that coexisted for some time but have been eventually ironed out? –  Otavio Macedo Aug 14 '11 at 22:03
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@OtavioMacedo: That is very well possible; my guess would be that that's how it went most of the time. But some of these suppletions happened even before English, I suspect, or at times immemorial. The word "better" comes from Proto-Indo-European *bhā̆d-, "good" (unrelated to "bad"), and in Old English it seems the positive form (something like *bet meaning "good") had already disappeared: utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ielex/X/P0182.html#E (A very useful site to look up etymology, and the other way around, from PIE root to reflexes). –  Cerberus Aug 15 '11 at 1:06

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