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I recall an English teacher explaining that verbs that change vowels during tense changes were called 'regular' and those that added '-ed' in the past tense were 'irregular'. This seemed counter-intuitive, but the explanation was that early English verb conjugation regularly inflected a vowel rather than not. Is this correct?

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3 Answers 3

It may be that your teacher was wrong, or it may be that one of you confused "regular" verbs with "strong" verbs.

In English linguistics (and Germanic languages in general), there are two classes of verbs known as the "strong verbs" and the "weak verbs". The strong verbs are those whose past tense and past participle are formed by ablaut, which is a vowel change in the stem of the verb. Strong verbs usually have a past participle which is different from the simple past form, and may have their past participle formed by -en.

sing / sang /sung

fly / flew / flown

break / broke / broken

The "weak verbs" are those whose past tense is formed with -d, -ed, or -t. These rarely or never have a past participle that's distinct from the simple past form.

bring / brought

say /said

lift / lifted

In principle, this distinction is orthogonal to the regular/irregular distinction. As the previous examples show, there are both regular weak verbs (lift/lifted) and irregular weak verbs (say/said). In older forms of English there were both regular and irregular strong verbs as well, but as time has gone on the "regular" strong verb patterns have applied to fewer and fewer verbs.

As a result, in modern English all strong verbs are irregular, and all regular verbs are weak verbs. However, in Old English the strong verbs were more common than the weak verbs, and most of the strong verbs were considered regular verbs. This confusion between "regular" and "strong" verbs is probably at the root of what your teacher said.

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Awesome response... Hey can you name some old-English strong regular verbs?! –  khovanskiiªn Nov 8 '12 at 21:53
I "sorta" knew this, but you've explained it so well I feel I have a much better grasp of the situation now, thank you. I particularly like the phrasing this distinction is orthogonal to [the other one] (that's definitely going in my "discursive toolkit"! :) –  FumbleFingers Nov 8 '12 at 21:53
@khovanskiiªn You may like this explanation, with examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_English_grammar#Strong_verbs. As you can see, the OE patterns were regular but complex, which encouraged many strong verbs to become weak over time, leaving us with the detritus of strong verbs we have today, which no longer follow much of any pattern. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 9 '12 at 0:01
I'm not sure bring is really the best verb to use as an example here—it is usually treated as a weak verb, but it's a strange anomaly in that it is really a mixture of weak and strong: it ablauts, but it also has the dental suffix. Seek is probably a better example to use, since it doesn't ablaut. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 8:40

Your teacher was wrong. It's the other way round.

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I would forget the terms "strong"and "weak" verbs.They are old terms used by Grimm around 1800. He called verbs with vowel change in the three stem forms "strong verbs" and those without "weak verbs". In my view illogical. If vowels change they are not strong, but weak.

But those terms need a lot of explanation and lead to confusion with the simpler terms "regular" and "irregular" verbs. (I changed "newer"terms to "simpler" terms.) So it is better to use one's own definition:

Regular verbs are verbs that form the stem forms with -ed in the second and third stem form.

All other verbs are irregular verbs.These are of different types, they can have vowel change or the ending -ed is slightly changed or there is vowel change and a transformed ending of -ed or all three forms are alike.

They must be learnt and you need an alphabetical list where you can look them up quickly.

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‘Regular’ and ‘irregular’ are by no means newer terms than ‘strong’ and ‘weak’—they’ve been in use since at least the 1600s. I also don’t see why inflection through stem change would logically be any ‘weaker’ than inflection through suffix addition. ‘Strong’ and ‘weak’ are just terms chosen—they don’t really make any more sense one way around than the other. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 8:51
In the historical development of words strong sounds (consonants and vowels) are relatively stable, only weak sounds change or are dropped. So I find it illogical to talk of "strong", when vowels in a verb are flexible and change. –  rogermue Apr 17 at 9:07
Eh? Consonants and vowels are relatively stable, and only weak sounds change or are dropped? What does that even mean? What sounds are left if you discard consonants and vowels? Both consonants and vowels are very frequently, in fact quite without exception, dropped in the historical development of words in all languages. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 9:54
@Janus Latin mater gives German Mutter and English mother. The vowel a changes, the consonants m an r don't change, and t changes only slightly. –  rogermue Apr 17 at 9:59
So you mean that consonants are the strong sounds, and the vowels are the weak sounds? That’s simply not true. First, Latin māter does not give German Mutter. The German word does not come from the Latin word. Second, the Latin word is 2000 years older than the German word, so you’re comparing apples to oranges. 2000 years ago, the Germanic form was *mōþer, which has one vowel and one consonant differing from Latin; by contrast, ‘father’ was *faðer, which differs from Latin pater by two consonants and no vowels. Comparing the descendants gets you no clearer result: [cont’d -->] –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 10:27

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