Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are ‘slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time’. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.


13 Responses to Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

  1. Fran says:

    Thanks for that link to the lecture, Stan. Am teaching Child Language Acquisition to A level students in a couple of weeks!

  2. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Fran – that was good timing, which isn’t like me at all! You might also be interested in this older post on babies’ babbling and how it gave rise to our pet names for parents.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I think one of the coolest parts of the book is the discussion of German. Unlike English nouns, where there are only about 30 irregulars (plus the Greek and Latin verbs with their borrowed plurals), the vast majority of German nouns are irregular, and only analogy and history explains how they cluster.

    Since the Yang review doesn’t allow comments, I’ll put them here. Pinker knows perfectly well that it is history that determines which English verbs are irregular: they are a subset of the verbs that belonged to the Old English regular strong verb classes I-VI, plus the fully irregular verbs in class VII. (Modern examples for the seven classes are write, choose, drink, steal, tread, shake, fall respectively.) However, that doesn’t explain just which verbs remained irregular (cf. slit, chew, swallow, (none), mete, drag, fold, which have become regular), whereas the frequency theory plus the family resemblances do. And yes, German-speakers sort their nouns into four (really seven) noun classes, word by word — there is no getting away from it; but the fact that novel nouns can take plural endings other than -s (the regular, but rare, plural ending) shows that analogy is operating there too.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Although “thunk” is not recognized as a legitimate word, the expression of one’s mild perplexity, “Who dah ‘thunk’ it?”— the slangy version of the more proper, correct, “Who would have thought it?”—appears to have been deemed fairly acceptable in casual English parlance these days.

    Can we dig it?

    Critic Charles Yang’s rather harsh review of Pinker’s recent book, ‘Words and Rules’, for me, was frankly a tad too technically wrought w/ lexicographic jargon, such as the terms “head” and “stem”, referring to two of the the basic constructive parts of particular words— novel nomenclature for this amateur word-usage enthusiast*…. he sheepishly admits.

    For me, the prime thrust of Yang’s critique appeared to be that Pinker was hung up, or stuck, w/ his basic thesis re/ past tensing of irregular verbs; caught betwixt the rationalist and empiricist extremes, never fully committing to either camp, and merely muddying the lexicographic waters w/ occasional bouts of hyperbole, and mild delusions of grandeur. (Yang, at times, was a regular ‘attack dog’, and offered few positives for Pinker’s efforts.)

    I have yet to read Pinker’s new book, however, in kind of reading between the lines of Yang’s mild pillorying of the popular linguist, I would have to say that Pinker was hardly as off-base as Yang suggests. (By just reading some of the cited direct quotes Yang pulled from Pinker’s text in an effort to support his (Yang’s) argument, I kind of give Pinker the benefit of any doubt, here.)

    Alas, the nature vs. nurture debate marches on; be it in the realm of linguistics—searching for the basic keys on how language is learned at its most fundamental level— or what basic elements determine human gender identity, or how the factors of an individual’s negative formative life-experience vs. their innate genetic makeup, could shape the hardened-criminal mind.

    *As a self-confessed rank amateur in the field of all things lexicographical and grammatical, at least in regards to the working nuts & bolts terminology used in the field(s), I’m sure, to the ‘experts’ in the language trade, terms like the aforementioned “head” and “stem” are as commonly understood as bogies, pars and eagles to the avid golfer.

    Thankfully, hanging out here at “Sentence first”, and a few other fine, lively language usage blogs out there, I’m slowly, but surely finding my ‘language legs’, so to speak, while enjoying the entire fun, learning experience along the way.

  5. Garrett Wollman says:

    So how does he deal with languages that either have no inflection or are (nearly) entirely regular? Or does he simply ignore them as uninteresting?

  6. Eugene says:

    Second language learners do similar things. In the field it’s known as “comprehension precedes production.” The learners usually have a sense of what sounds right long before they can say it.
    Pinker is interesting and informative, but I suppose I should read the critical review. I can’t quite imagine how the history of the language is relevant to how a child works out the rules of his or her native tongue, though. They just don’t have access to that information.

  7. Marc Leavitt says:

    Pinker’s thesis aside( it reminds me of the scholastics trying to determine how many angels there are on the head of a pin), his article did remind me of my attempts at learning several languages.

    Despite all the theories and clever “tricks,” nothing beats repetition and full immersion, whether as an infant or adult.

    Quick anecdote: When I last went to Switzerland, my French,German, and Italian, were tucked into the back of a drawer in a chest up in the attic where I keep clothes I seldom wear.

    After a day or two, the languages, when I needed to use them, started to come back to me. But learning noun plurals and genders and verb conjugations relies on repetition, repetition, repetition.

    Yes, there are correspondences which help in the memorization and use of irregular forms, but without constant use, like all memories, they drift away, and as an adult speaker or as a child, one takes a default position, and uses whichever form one knows to get the meaning across, all the while knowing that one probably got the gender wrong, or used an incorrect past tense.

    As far as his formulations, I think usage trumps all; at least, that’s what I thunk about it when I read his piece.

  8. Stan says:

    John: Yes, I liked those parts of the book a lot, and was glad to have some familiarity with the language (though this was inessential to appreciating Pinker’s discussion). Though I studied German for a few years, I hadn’t known just how dominant were its irregular verbs.

    Alex: Many major dictionaries recognise thunk as legitimate, though they label it as dialectal or nonstandard. So I suppose it depends on what kind of legitimacy is meant! Yang’s review was hostile, all right. I don’t always agree with Pinker, but his book is better than the LRB review suggests.

    Garrett: He looks briefly at several languages in decreasing order of relatedness to English, including Dutch, French, Hungarian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese, and assesses how each accords with the theories under consideration.

    Eugene: “Comprehension precedes production” rings true. Luckily, comprehension is privileged in conversation with native speakers, who are usually very patient and helpful with learners. Pinker’s book is pretty interesting on history, showing for example how certain lesser-used irregular forms might have more-or-less disappeared within a few generations.

    Marc: Yes: there’s nothing like repetition and immersion, or prolonged practice with native speakers, to wire a new tongue. There are tricks and shortcuts here and there, but they have limited application. It’s sadly true, too, that with disuse one’s command of another language steadily fades.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Thanks for the clarification on the legitimacy of the word “thunk”. I imagine I should have checked the word out in some credible dictionaries before just assuming it was not an actual officially accepted word, “nonstandard”, or otherwise. (Research can pay off, in the end.)

    Following up on my earlier, “Who dah thunk it?” example, I’m now pondering how say Olympic speed-demon, Usain Bolt, or his worthy running-mate-sometime-track-rival, Yohan Blake, would articulate the same sentence in their distinctive, sing-songy Jamaican dialect?

    I imagine it would sound ‘sometin’ lak dis’, “Ooh dah thunk eet?”… w/ maybe a “mon” (man) tossed in at the end, for good measure.

    For me, it was a true delight to hear those immediate, track-side, post-race media interviews w/ the spirited Jamaican runners, both male and female. IMHO, there’s just something so pleasant to one’s ear in taking in the bouncy, lilting, sometimes clipped, cadence, and sound of the native Jamaican manner of speech.*

    I must say I get a similar pleasure, and warm feelings in listening to very young British, and Irish grade-schoolers, just talking merrily away about nothing-in-particular. They just sound so, so very cool.
    (These generally bright, well-spoken kids just seem to exude a native charm, and exhibit almost an adult sensibility. Maybe wise beyond their tender years?)

    Perhaps it’s in the general unfamiliarity of our (non-native Brits and non-native-Irish) untuned ears, for the sound and manner of everyday speech, the idiomatic linguistic patterns of authentic Brit-En., and Irish-En., …. where we find this continued fascination; we North Americans being so totally immersed in our own, too familiar America and Canadian versions of English?

    *I highly recommend the recently released ‘doc’ film, “Marley”, if you just can’t get your fill of that spiffy Jamaican lingo. Aside from the linguistic angle, the film presents a most revealing, balanced, warts-and-all chronicling of the world-renowned late Reggae icon, Bob Marley’s all-consuming passion for his music, and his unflagging drive in getting his message(s) of racial tolerance, global peace, human compassion, understanding, joy, and love, out into the world at large.

    His radiant star shone so brightly, yet he died so relatively young. His powerful music and message DO live on. Alas, the world is a far better place w/ Marley’s legacy of being a fighting, unifying, loving spirit, w/ a unique, and special gift for music.

    In my view, Bob Marley’s “One Love”, pretty much say it all, ‘mon’.

  10. Stan says:

    Alex: Jamaican accents please me too, but I have no flair for imitation. Children’s speech patterns in general I find fascinating and charming, regardless of their dialect or even language – though the appeal is normally greater when I can understand what they’re saying. Thanks for the Marley recommendation; I’ll try and get around to seeing it some day.

  11. […] Words and Rules (1999), his book about irregular verbs, Steven Pinker writes the following: Snuck has the […]

  12. […] deliberated on up to. Stan Carey delved into irregular verbs, and on his own blog, focused on children’s awareness of irregular verbs and different types of […]

  13. […] us town.” I don’t think that’s grammatical in any variety of English, though we might hear goed from a child who has temporarily regularised a strong […]

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