Language: How irregular verbs may come to be

Our party this new year includes a baby/toddler, nearly 15 months old, who is learning to talk.

It seems to me that the words his parents, and all we adults, use to him fall into two groups. They are nouns (“uncle”, “bus”) or descriptions of the state of things (“well done”, “peep-o”).

Our baby repeats these words and learns. But they don’t fully meet his needs. What he wants to use language for, above all, is to tell us what to do.

For that he needs imperative verbs. We’re not giving them to him, so he’s making his own, re-using our “description of the state of things” words.

Sometimes this isn’t immediately obvious. “Up”, we say, as we lift him up. “Up”, he says, when he wants to be lifted. “More”, we say, as we offer him more food. “More”, he shouts, when he wants some.

But then, more inventively: we say “all done” when an activity is over. “All done”, he says, when the activity that is going on – lying on his back to have his nappy changed – is something that he wants to end.

And most strikingly: “bye bye”, we say, equal stress on each syllable, as we are leaving or as someone else is leaving. Last night, distressed by someone leaving who he didn’t want to go, he cried out “bye bye”, the second syllable stressed, to instruct her to come back. Again and again.

I think:

1) Because we are not teaching him imperatives, our baby is making them for himself. He is creating language (including by altering the pronunciation of a word he has been taught – “bye bye” – as he gives it a new meaning).

2) This is pretty exciting.

3) He makes his imperatives out of words that have meanings close to the meaning he wants to express. But because he knows few words, the grammatical and semantic relationships between the word he uses and the concept he wants to express cannot be the same each time. So the imperative verbs that he creates are irregular.

4) I imagine that all kids do this and always have done. If so, and if languages grow partly through this kind of invention, such inventions becoming institutionalised, this might be a way in which irregularities get baked into language.

wireless ordering cafe Tartu 815

(Service, Drink, Bill, Cancel: a device using different parts of speech to give orders at a bar in Tartu, Estonia, 2015.)

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

One thought on “Language: How irregular verbs may come to be”

  1. Another example: he says “brrrm brrrrm” when enjoying moving in his push chair – and yesterday said “brrrm *brrm*” to encourage us to move along in the supermarket!

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