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Folks, my question has to do with really difficult things to understand, so I've chosen this forum and think only truly wise owls are able to help me.

As you, I hope, know, lots of English irregular verbs were taken from German, but ever since, a very long time has passed, so at least half of those have become too archaic (like step-stope-stopen).

So, lots of them are really like German irregular verbs, for example:

  1. German: ringen-rang-gerungen. English: ring-rang-rung.
  2. German: springen-sprang-gesprungen. English: spring-sprang-sprung.

My question is why have some of such verbs changed a little bit by changing their root a to u in the English language?

Examples:

  1. German: swingen-swang-geswungen. English: swing-swung-swung (swang is no longer acceptable as the past simple of swing)

  2. German: stechen-stach-gestochen. English: sting-stung-stung (now, stang is half-acceptable, yet it's very seldom used in speech).

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  • I have wondered also about irregular verbs, why sometimes the different tenses do not resemble each other at all. A very good example is "to go." How is "went" the past tense of "go"?? My belief is that while a modern person understands going in the past is just a special case of going, this was not understood when these words were coined. "To be" in both German and English is equally baffling. I believe Chinese deals with tense much more "rationally."
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 7:25
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    How is "went" the past tense of "go"?? It's called suppletion; went is from a different root than go. As explained at english.stackexchange.com/questions/28514/… Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 12:36
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    As you, I hope, know, lots of English irregular verbs were taken from German, That is a gross and misleading simplification. It also ignores the fact that in Modern German it is, and Old English it was, usual for the past participle to be suffixed by "ge-", thus whether the vowel changed or not, the two could be distinguished. In transitional OE, the "ge-" was lost and some verbs ended up with only two forms - so to speak.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 17:57
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    The majority of the verbs you are referring to are not irregular (as are the verbs to be and to go) but strong. In fact they have a regularity in vowel change that is such that children given nonsense words will construct appropriate forms of the preterite and the perfect. Note also that Germanic words in English are not derived from German, but both are derived from the same proto-Germanic sources.
    – David
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 20:36

2 Answers 2

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I take this question to be motivated by the phenomenon recently exemplified in the title of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, where the normal past tense form shrank of the irregular verb shrink has been displaced by shrunk, the past participle form. I.e,

  • shrink, shrank, shrunk is parallel to sing, sang, sung and ring, rang, rung
    with three different verb forms using three different vowels (just as in German)

but

  • shrink, shrunk, shrunk is parallel to wring, wrung, wrung and sit, sat, sat
    with only two verb forms: identical past and past participle forms, using a different vowel from the first.

This, in turn, is part of a very gradual shift from irregular to regular for English verbs. English regular verbs all have the following two characteristics

  1. There are only two verb forms - the infinitive/present, and the past/participle (like sit, sat, sat)
  2. Past and Participle forms identically end in -ed/t (unlike sit, with a vowel change instead of a suffix)

What's happened to many irregular English verbs is that they've lost the third distinctive form and now have only two, and that's come from merging the past and the participle forms, which are often confused in the grammar anyway. So they're gradually calving off newer, more regular verbs, and eventually all but the most common will default to regularity. About the time English loses all its inflections and becomes analytic, like hit, hit, hit.

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    Good, this answer should be just what the asker is looking for. // As a matter of trivia, Wikipedia mentions which common strong verbs of class 3 have reduced their original threefold i/a/u pattern to twofold ones, something which can vary a bit by region and register, writing “one of which may be dialectal or archaic” and listing begin, drink, ring, shrink, sing, slink, spin, spring, stink, swing, swim, and wring as examples of verbs where using a twofold pattern is—in effect—not considered “highbrow” use today.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 17:48
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    @alphabet It is absolutely ɴᴏᴛ ‘a recent Americanism’! Indeed you have it completely reversed: the loss of gotten is merely a recent Britishism; North American dialects have never forgotten how to use it. Gotten has always been perfectly common everywhere, ever since early Middle English onwards, right up until quite recently in those British dialects that have lost it (outside ill-gotten). We have many, many questions and answers about this matter.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 19:27
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    'Shrank' and 'wrang' are still part of my own vocabulary and I suggest also that of many of my fellow native Brits. Is BrE preserving the three-fold form better than AmE, perhaps ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 20:19
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    Strong, John, strong. They are not irregular.
    – David
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 20:39
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    @alphabet As the man with the diamond says, gotten is originally a British form (it is found in the Authorized version of the Bible) which died out in Britain but not the US. If you want an invented American strong verb form, dove (from dive) is what you are after. See this Merriam-Webster piece.
    – David
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 21:35
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Actually, in Old English there was a difference for strong verbs between the vowel used in the singular past tense forms and the vowel used in the plural past tense form: you would say iċ wrang "I wrung" but wē wrungon "we wrung", iċ swang, wē swungon and so on.

It is possible that for some verbs the vowel of the plural rather than the singular was generalized when English came to use just one stem to form all simple past tense forms. Why different verbs turned out differently is something that I have no idea how to explain.

It is also of course possible for verbs to have joined this class later on by the process of analogy.

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    The most obvious case, at least in the context of your answer, of a verb which later joined this class by analogy is ring. Originally a weak class 1 verb, it became more and more of a strong class 3 verb starting in the 1300s, probably by analogy with wring or with sing, which always were such.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 4:59

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