Inflections

Not afflictions, but inflections: although the difference is sometimes hard to see.

The stem –flect- means to bend or change shape (reflect, deflect, reflex…)

An inflected language changes the form of its words depending on what job the word is being asked to do. European languages related to Latin or Greek have a combination of endings added to a word stem (eg look => looked, looking), which is fine and dandy, but they can also change the stem as well (eg transmit and transmitted, but transmission). It makes for a fine old mess from the outside and for perfect sense from the inside. The human mind is a wonderful code machine.

You’ll note that I said above “European languages related to Latin and Greek” and then used an example from English. That’s because, even though we might think of English as a Germanic-derived language, in fact if that group is not directly derived from Latin and Greek they certainly all come from the same place: a proto-European ancestor language. If you want to follow this up, you will enter the wonderful world of philology, but do it in your own time.

An inflected word carries with it a kind of flag with information on it. The flag will tell you if the word is a noun, verb, or any other part of speech, whether is used in the subject or object phrases of the sentence, whether it is singular or plural, masculine or feminine or neuter… In fact all of the grammatical information needed to interpret the meaning of the word. In completely-inflected languages like Latin, the nett result is that word order becomes irrelevant and the only people who worried about it were orators and poets and then only for effect.

The flags are made up of letters from the alphabet of the language. The most famous set of inflections in Latin is of course amo, amas, amat, which demonstrated a common verb pattern which translates as: I love, you love, he loves and moreover all of us are single and all of this is being said right now, in the present, and has no beginning and no end. An English speaker becomes confused because so few of the letters are repeated so as to be recognisable as a common word, whereas a Latin speaker paid much more attention to the information contained in the changes made to the basic word (which, by the way, was amare meaning “to love”). Change any aspect of the information and you change the form of the word, because that was the rule.

Anglo-Saxon, a direct ancestor of English, was an inflected language and was indeed one of the group of languages loosely called Germanic. One of its Germanic cousins spoken in the north of France had, over 1000 years or so, managed to simplify itself by getting rid of a large proportion of its inflections and had substituted word order as a rule for making sense. This was Norman French, which was imported somewhat unilaterally to Anglo-Saxon speaking Albion/Angleland/Britain in 1066. For the next three centuries or so, the land was bi-lingual with whatever it was the peasants spoke being left in their grubby hands (or the hands of enthusiastic amateurs or rebels) and the formal and legislative needs of the nation being expressed in Norman French. As the Normans tended to lose their lands in France and become more English, a hybrid Middle English emerged. The most important element of that hybrid was the shearing off of inflections and the adoption of word order rules. 500 years after the Norman invasion, the hybrid had emerged as recognisably-modern English: the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Modern English keeps two major kinds of inflections: a simple group for nouns, and a much more complex group for verbs.

English nouns can exist in two forms: a form which says “there is only one of me” and a form which says “there are two or more of me”. We know this as singular/plural and is achieved by simply adding an “-s”, which was one of the plural inflections available to Anglo-Saxon speakers.

Verbs, on the other hand, are complex beasts in all languages and modern English still copes with the complexity by inflection. Like Latin, endings are added to stems which may change. This is all easily dealt with if the changes conform to a strict pattern, and the good news is that most changes are strict: let’s use the grammatical term regular. There are only about 40 or 50 irregular verbs, but before you celebrate just contemplate the bad news that it is those irregular verbs which are used in English most often. In fact, it is possible that our daily verb use is comprised of about 80% irregular verbs.

The information contained within verbs is the how many areinvolved in the action; who is involved in the action; the time when the action is taking place: number, person and tense.

Number is dealt with simply enough by nominating single or plural.

Person has six options: first person, meaning the speaker; second person, meaning who is being spoken to; third person, meaning who is being spoken about by the other two. One personal group is singular, one group is plural. There is complication relating to this, however, because a relic of Anglo-Saxon lives on in that we need to know whether the third person is masculine, feminine, or neuter. This gender distinction is no longer expressed in the inflections but in the pronouns used: for example, let’s look at a grid structure made up of subject, singular + plural; object, singular + plural.

first person: I, me; we, we(not gender specific)

second person: you, you; you, you (New York grammar, youse) (not gender specific)

third person: he, him, she, her, it, it; they, them.

When you add those pronouns to the verbs, oh boy, are you piling on the information, and it’s still only a small sample of what was possible with Anglo-Saxon. Note the very strange second person line and the odd repetitions without changes: something has been lost from the language. Sorry, it wasn’t me.

Tense tells us about time. The simplest division is past, present, future. Each of those divisions is capable of refinement: is the action happening now? Is it finished? Did it start not long ago but is continuing? Did it start a long time ago and is still continuing and will continue? Will it happen in the future? Did it start and finish in the past? Is this an old thing or quite new? If I think myself through to next Tuesday can I consider what I will do then after something has finished next Monday? And so on. Modern English retains more tenses than many of its cousins. Because English uses only a small subset of inflections, the precision of its tenses is achieved through using groups of words to help extend the meaning of the base verb. These are auxiliary verbs, like is, make, doing, and so on. Let’s look at some examples:

Regular verb to love, simple present tense

I love / we love

you love / you love

he, she, it loves / they love

When you look at it, that’s a pretty pathetic group of inflections. We are relying on the correct use of pronouns to make sense of the verbs.

Regular verb to love, completed past tense

I loved / we loved

you loved / you loved

he, she, it loved / they loved

and there we have a perfectly regular inflection (-ed) which shifts the action into the immediate past.

Regular verb to love, simple future tense

I will love / we will love

you will love / you will love

he, she, it will love / they will love

which has no inflections at all, just a simple auxiliary (will).

Want to know what life is like for irregular verb? Let’s choose the verb that is irregular in every European language: the verb to be. If it were a regular verb we would expect something like I be, you be, he be, we be and so on, yes? Oh no, it’s not that simple…

Irregular verb to be, simple present tense

I am / we are

you are / you are

he, she, it is / they are

Irregular verb to be, simple past tense

I was / we were

you were / you were

he, she, it was / they were

This all goes way beyond inflections: the stems aren’t even the same.

Irregular verb to be, simple future tense

I will be / we will be

you will be / you will be

he, she, it will be / they will be

and if you can work out why only that tense is quite logical, you’re a better man than I am.

If you read this article in the hope that you will discover a set of rules for inflection of English, I’m sorry to disappoint you. There are none. There are a whole series of patterns which are relics of old languages and failed attempts to regularise English which creates a hell of a lot to remember but not much to understand. English speakers handle the irregularities relatively easily, because they grew up with it and it’s in their heads. “It sounds right” has become the arbiter of the rule. However, teaching native English speakers about the intricacies of the language (like inflections) tends to spread confusion and alarm rather than elucidation: the human brain seeks organisation and in English it finds only false hope. Teaching non-native speakers a language in which there are more exceptions to key rules than conformity to them can be a nightmare, and I found myself doing something I hated: telling students just to memorise stuff. And apologizing.

On the other hand, looking at languages that have sprung from modern English such as Gullah, Pidgin English or Singapore English, the lack of rigid structure has produced whole new local systems of communication, and good on it. Englieese rulz, jolly good, wot?

 

*Actually other people have pointed out that many old languages had very limited ways of considering the future. The proposition is that life then was indeed nasty, brutish and short and time spent dreaming of an uncertain future was time lost in dealing with the present, perhaps with benefit of bitter memories past. The further proposition is that the regularity and complexity of English future tenses argues for a late adoption in better times rather than an ancient past. Game of grammatical Anthropology, anyone?