Monday, April 8, 2013

Talking about talking: wing, wang, wung?

I'm a grad student in linguistics, so I can't help noticing cool little quirks in the different ways people talk. I've been catching up on old episodes of The Tolkien Professor podcast (HIGHLY recommended if you're at all interested in Tolkien), and I heard a seminar participant say, "I wung it" (meaning "I improvised it").

Why did he (or whoever he learned the word from) use wung over the standard English winged? If you think about it a second, you might be able to guess why. Historical linguists (people who study how language changes) call this kind of development analogy, just like those annoying SAT problems I had to do a million of: A is to B as X is to __ . Analogy is a way of making one part of your language more similar to another part.

What might be the basis of the analogy this speaker used to create wung? I think there are a few possibilities:
  1. fling - flung, sting - stung, and also similarly hang - hung. So the analogy might be "fling is to flung as wing is to wung".
  2. Verbs with three different forms, like sing - sang - sung, ring - rang - rung, also drink - drank - drunk, stink - stank - stunk.
The problem with option (2), at first glance, is that the analogy doesn't line up: since the past tense of sing is sang, and so forth, the past tense of wing should be...well, wang. I can think of a few good reasons to avoid using this form. But there might be an actual linguistic reason too.

I've noticed other people (and myself too) using the u-forms (the past participles) of words like sing in the past tense instead of the a-forms. How do these sentences sound to you?
  • We all stood up and sung the national anthem.
  • That stupid dog rolled in poo and stunk up my whole house!
To me, they're not all that bad (although I recognize them as being non-standard). I think these three-form verbs like sing might be slowly simplifying to two-form verbs, like fling. After all, it's one less form to worry about (most English verbs only have two forms anyway) and there are very similar verbs like fling to base the analogy on.

Another possible example: you're probably familiar with thunk, as in "Who'd a' thunk it?" This verb seems to have been formed by analogy to drink - drank - drunk. But again, by this analogy the past tense of think should be *thank. Have you ever heard someone say:
  • I thank about him all day long.
So, going back to wung, I think we might have two things going on: formation of a new past tense by analogy, and the beginnings of simplification of three-form verbs to two-form.

Oh, one more reason why wung is interesting: in general, historical linguists have noticed that a given irregular pattern in a language will tend to fade away over time. Based on this principle, we would expect to hear people saying things like *singed, *drinked and so forth. But in this case, we can see that if an irregular form is used frequently enough, it can actually overpower regular forms (like winged) and also different irregular forms (like thought > thunk). And it doesn't just happen in non-standard dialects--did you know the past tense of wear used to be weared?

1 comment:

  1. Here's another one: "sneaked" being replaced by "snuck."