Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

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Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Princess Marzipan » Wed Aug 15, 2012 3:10 am UTC

This question occurred to me during a conversation with a friend about differences in languages.

Conjugating a verb makes sure the verb form matches with the subject performing the verb action. In a language where subjects can be dropped entirely and the conjugation of the verb is a grammatically correct way to identify its performer(s), the multiple verb forms make sense. But English never drops subjects; why must there be a difference between "he runs" and "I run"? I would imagine it's a holdover from English's roots, but I am curious to know if any actual purpose is known to be served. Anyone know?
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Derek » Wed Aug 15, 2012 3:46 am UTC

Historical vestige, though it does also distinguish indicative from subjunctive moods: "He runs to the store", "It is necessary that he run to the store". Of course, this only begs the question of why we still distinguish the subjunctive.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Magnanimous » Wed Aug 15, 2012 3:55 am UTC

I know Esperanto and Interlingua keep the same verb form regardless of the subject, so I'd assume that it makes more sense. The history of English is pretty fucked up.

Sort of related: I've thought about gender-neutral pronouns and the singular "they" a bit, and it doesn't too extreme to say "they is a person" and "they are people"... That would clear up the ambiguity over having "they" be both singular and plural.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby poxic » Wed Aug 15, 2012 4:02 am UTC

[Warning: this is kind of conjecture, though the mass speakers = simpler grammar thing is I think well established.]

Language seems to have started without any grammar going on at all, or not much more than a few basics. There are damn few rules and pretty much everything is an exception. (How much grammar can you find in your dog's various noises? There's meaning, sure, but "grammar" is a bit hard to apply.)

Over time, as new generations learn the language of their people, the trend is toward simplifying -- expanding rules to apply to more cases, ignoring exceptions. The more concurrent speakers a language has, in regular contact, the more simple and regular the grammar tends to become.

Think of a child still learning to speak: "Look at my foots!* " The child understands the basic rule but hasn't learned all the exceptions yet. The greater the number of people that are learning a language at about the same time, the more their simplifications and mistakes reinforce each other and become the new norm. ("Donut" anyone? How many donut's?)

I guess what I'm saying is that we just haven't got around to de-conjugating verbs in English yet. Give us another few hundred years of mass media for mass population and we just might get there.


* Actual sentence that I once heard from a four- or five-year-old. A pretty smart one, too.
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby steewi » Wed Aug 15, 2012 6:14 am UTC

The best answer here is: redundancy.

Some languages conjugate verbs, and if the conjugation system is efficient you don't have to supply a noun that says what the subject (or in some languages, object) is; when you can do that it's called a pro-drop language. We do it a little bit in very colloquial English ("Got milk?"), but it's generally considered poor style. On the other hand, if you *don't* conjugate verbs, you have to have an explicit subject, or rely on context to resolve the ambiguity (like Japanese does).

In English, aside from BE, we barely conjugate our verbs. So really, we don't need to mark the 3rd person singular present on the verb. So we could drop it without any big consequence (except sounding like an idiot to people who still put it on there). But it does hold some purpose still, and that's where the redundancy comes into it. If you've missed the word (because you're not concentrating, background noise, etc.), you still have another chance to recognise what person the subject of the sentence was. We keep pronouns, because the verb looks the same for everything but 3rd singular.

So what you have is a couple of options, linguistically speaking:
1. Lots of conjugation, so you can drop pronouns: Latin, Italian, Spanish, Swahili, etc.
2. No conjugation, but drop the pronouns anyway (context sorts it out): Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.
3. Some conjugation, keep the pronouns, just in case: (spoken) French, Scandinavian languages(?).
4. Always give the pronouns, don't bother conjugating: English (mostly)

The wider principle is that languages will mark things different ways (or not bother at all), but they do like to have some redundancy built into the system, so that if part of it fails, the communication still works.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby poxic » Wed Aug 15, 2012 6:39 am UTC

Apropos of nothing:

Holy crap, steewi!
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby steewi » Wed Aug 15, 2012 10:37 am UTC

Explaining these things is kind of how I make a living. Well, that and go to meetings.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby poxic » Thu Aug 16, 2012 12:41 am UTC

The "holy crap" was because long time no steewi, but I'll accept that as a reason for the thoroughness of your post as well. :D
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby steewi » Thu Aug 16, 2012 3:08 am UTC

I've got things to make up for.

In the mean time, I acquired a boyfriend, graduated and (sadly) moved a long way away from said boyfriend for work.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Iulus Cofield » Thu Aug 16, 2012 3:31 am UTC

It's pretty incredible the amount of extra noise there is in languages in what seems to be an attempt to make it easier to pay less attention.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby poxic » Thu Aug 16, 2012 3:49 am UTC

Pretty much. People don't listen well most of the time, so redundancy works. Similar to why the military uses a verbose code for letters: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie aren't quicker to say than A, B, or C, but you can drop out most of the sounds (through inattention or line static) and still receive the message.
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Aug 16, 2012 6:07 am UTC

poxic wrote:Language seems to have started without any grammar going on at all, or not much more than a few basics. There are damn few rules and pretty much everything is an exception. (How much grammar can you find in your dog's various noises? There's meaning, sure, but "grammar" is a bit hard to apply.)

Over time, as new generations learn the language of their people, the trend is toward simplifying
I'm hesitant to call what dogs do "language", and I am always extremely skeptical of any posited universal trend in language. For one thing, what do you mean by "simplify"? And if the trend is toward simplifications, how come there's no evidence that all languages today are simpler than languages 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years ago?

I think that, for a suitable ass-extracted definition of "simple" for languages, simplifying one thing tends to make that thing more susceptible to ambiguity. Since speakers of a language only tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity, they come up with some other change that helps to remove it, thus "complexifying" their language at the same time as they're simplifying it. Note for example the pretty much absolute requirement for subjects in English, leading to rather nonsensical (when interpreted with strict logic through the lens of a language with more conjugations) expressions like "It is raining" and "It is important to brush your teeth" and "There is a book on the table". What is "it" in the first two? What is "there" in the last one? Those subjects don't point to anything, and yet are grammatically required, which suggests an increase in complexity at some point to make up for the simplification of dropping most verb conjugations.

poxic wrote:Pretty much. People don't listen well most of the time, so redundancy works. Similar to why the military uses a verbose code for letters: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie aren't quicker to say than A, B, or C, but you can drop out most of the sounds (through inattention or line static) and still receive the message.
Right. Written English has only about 1 bit of information per character, despite the fact that we have more like 5 bits worth of characters (letters, spaces, and pick your five favorite other punctuation marks to get 32). The redundancy allows for error correction and, given how our brains work, much faster comprehension.

And if you actually listen carefully to the incredible number of sounds you don't pronounce in normal conversational speech, you see how important the redundancy is there, as well.
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby poxic » Thu Aug 16, 2012 8:23 am UTC

Hmm. I think I meant "easier to learn/less abstruse grammar" when I said "simpler". This is not the same as fewer words, because of the ambiguity you mention.

My asspulled thoughts were based on how difficult it can be to learn languages with (comparatively) few speakers. As a ham-handed rule of thumb, the fewer speakers a language has had over a given amount of time, the more complex and irregular the grammar. Icelandic is more difficult for a non-native to learn than English (grammar-wise), and First Nations languages are notoriously tough.

(It was a bit silly to describe a dog's barking as language, yes. It's communication closer to grunting and pointing than speech.)
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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby goofy » Thu Aug 16, 2012 1:28 pm UTC

poxic wrote:My asspulled thoughts were based on how difficult it can be to learn languages with (comparatively) few speakers. As a ham-handed rule of thumb, the fewer speakers a language has had over a given amount of time, the more complex and irregular the grammar.


I've heard this before, but I haven't seen any evidence. In fact we know that as languages die, they lose a lot of contrasts and categories.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Daimon » Fri Aug 17, 2012 3:06 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
poxic wrote: expressions like "It is raining" and "It is important to brush your teeth" and "There is a book on the table". What is "it" in the first two? What is "there" in the last one?


The clouds are raining.
It, for the benefit of your health, is important to brush your teeth.
I'm not sure about the last one, but isn't "there" the same thing as the table? Or perhaps, "over there", meaning wherever the speaker is pointing. (If you were talking to someone.)

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Iulus Cofield » Fri Aug 17, 2012 3:14 am UTC

Those don't work. If it was the clouds that were raining, the phrase would be "they're raining", not "it's raining." For the second, you still have to throw an it in there or it becomes ungrammatical. The third is disproven by sentences like "there is a book over there" and "over there, there's a book."

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby steewi » Fri Aug 17, 2012 4:49 am UTC

poxic wrote: expressions like "It is raining" and "It is important to brush your teeth" and "There is a book on the table". What is "it" in the first two? What is "there" in the last one?

You have two different phenomena there.

For "It is raining" and "There is a book on the table":

This is being used as an impersonal pronoun. Because in English we have to use pronouns (see above) we can't just say "Raining." In order to have a full sentence, we have to put a noun phrase of some sort at the beginning. But what's raining? We don't care. All that's important is that rain is coming out of the sky, so we put a 'dummy' pronoun in there to satisfy the syntactic needs of the sentence. The same thing applies for "There is/are ...".

For "It is important to brush your teeth":

This is a type of topicalisation, and it's called an extraposed subject (I taught this in class just today!). You could say that the underlying sentence is "To brush your teeth is important". But this is kind of putting the emphasis in the wrong place. The underlying sentence implies that you're talking about brushing your teeth, and the point is that it's "important", but if you're trying to emphasise what's important, and what's important is brushing your teeth, you put it at the end (in many languages you'd bring it to the front, but we like to put important things at the end). Because "to brush your teeth" is now at the end, you need to put something at the beginning or it sounds like a question. You put in an "it" to fill it in.

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Re: Why must we conjugate verbs in English?

Postby Dingbats » Sun Aug 19, 2012 7:50 pm UTC

poxic wrote:Hmm. I think I meant "easier to learn/less abstruse grammar" when I said "simpler".

That's still completely wrong, and gmalivuk basically explained it correctly. There is no evidence whatsoever that the languages of today are any easier to learn or have less abstruse grammar than those of thousands of years ago. Some parts are simplified and some parts are made more complex, it's happening as we speak (literally), and in the end it evens out.


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