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The Future Half-Life of Verbs

by Kevin Kelly on October 24th, 02007

Language evolves, The English we might speak in the future will be different. One long term trend in English moves towards uniform ways of making verbs past tense. Ordinarily we do it by adding “ed” to the end.

To get an idea of where English might evolve to in the coming centuries, several linguists published a paper in Nature which tracked the shift in the regularization of irregular verbs.  Those are verbs like sink, sting, swim, wring and spring, which unlike most English verbs are made past tense by changing the “i” to “u” instead of adding the usual “ed” at the end. So we should properly say that yesterday we sunk, stung, swum, wrung or sprung, instead of sinked, stinged, swimmed, wringed, or springed.

If we trace the course of other irregular verbs from hundreds of years ago that have already be regularized, we can begin to estimate how long it will be before these remaining irregular verbs like sinked, springed and the rest become (becamed?) the accepted way to speak. At past rates it will take another 300-2,000 years.

I would bet that it takes nowhere near that time.  I already use sinked in conversation. Everyone knows what it means with zero uncertainty. It is less confusing and more precise than other venecular usages like “they” for “he/she” (a usage I also embrace).

Irregularverbs

Some of these predicted half-lifes for future word spellings are almost worth betting on at Long Bets. I’d be willing to bet on selected words being accepted faster than they project.

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