Third grade class working hard on their art history assignment. Photo: Bliss Chan / Flickr.

The power of forgetfulness

Emily Brewster remarked the other day on the emergence and resurgence of irregular verb forms like “snuck,” “dreamt” and “awoke.” Stan Carey calls these forms unusual, and they are less common than innovative regular forms, but they are not surprising if you know the mechanisms underlying morphological change, in particular the role of forgetting and how we use analogy to overcome it.

For years, many linguists assumed that all change happened in the imperfect transmission of language from parents to children, because they heard small children produce over-regularized forms like “he keeped running.” In 1982 Joan Bybee and Dan Slobin published “Rules and schemas in the development and use of the English past tense,” but I prefer the title of an earlier version they presented to the ICHL, “Why small children cannot change language on their own.”

Bybee and Slobin asked English-speaking preschoolers, third graders (ages 8-10) and adults to produce past tense forms under time pressure. They found that the preschoolers almost always made errors like “blowed” instead of “blew,” but the third graders and adults hardly ever did. On the other hand, the third graders and adults did create novel irregular forms like “glew” as the past tense of “glow” and “snoze” as the past tense of “snooze.” They concluded that changes like the rise of “snuck” can only be driven by adults and older children.

What was this condition of language change that Slobin recreated in the laboratory? Forgetting. We forget all kinds of things. We forget where we left our keys, we forget where our second cousin is going to college, we forget how to hammer a nail or how to sing “Cielito Lindo.” It shouldn’t surprise us that once in a while we forget the past tense of “dive,” or the plural of “rhinoceros.” We’ve all been there.

So what do you do when you forget? Do you stand there like a moron with your mouth open? Well, yes, we all do sometimes. But after a while, or if you’re thinking quick, you’ll improvise. You’ll think of all the similar things and do something like that. You’ll look in the places you’ve found your keys in the past. You’ll mention another, similar college. You’ll swing the hammer the way you swing a tennis racket or you’ll substitute a word that fits in the song.

That’s what we do with the past tense. We think of how we’ve made the past tense of all the similar verbs and do something like that. We linguists call that analogy.

In researching the title for this post, I discovered that it comes from Nietzsche, of all people. Funny enough, I agree with Nietzsche that cultural change comes from forgetting, but I disagree with him that it needs to be an “active forgetting.” Passive forgetting seems to work just fine.

If you want to find out how analogy leads to “snoze” and “snuck,” you can read Bybee and Slobin’s papers at the links above, or watch this space and I’ll post more about it soon.

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