Books: When irregular verbs can be exciting

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language by Steven Pinker Weidenfeld pounds 14.99

Words and Rules is a demanding, full-length book about irregular verbs. Yet this description gives little sense of its flavour and excitement. Better to say that it develops the arguments of Pinker's ambitious "language instinct" and "how the mind works" by homing in on a few minor linguistic quirks and then using them to illuminate some essential aspects of what makes us human. Written with characteristic energy and enthusiasm, it sweeps across some pretty dry terrain but remains gripping throughout.

The central point can be made briefly. A dirty house may be "rat-infested" or "mice-infested" but never "rats-infested" (though an infestation requires more than one rat). This, Pinker claims, is because regular and irregular plurals are stored differently in our memory. For irregulars, we have a number of mouse-mice, ox-oxen, sing-sang-sung networks hot-linked in our brains, giving us instant access to all the correct forms. With regulars, we just learn the head word "rat" along with a rule stating roughly: "When in doubt add an s to a noun to create a plural."

Because the word "rats" does not appear in our mental dictionaries, it is unavailable for use in compound expressions. The s and ed default settings for plurals and past tenses can override seemingly tempting alternatives. Cookery-writer Julia Child and her family are "the Childs", not "the Children". Cities are "ringed" by artillery, beans need to be "stringed" (not "strung"), and so on. A bad actor in Hamlet "out-Herods Herod", so theoretically we can create a new verb by adding out to any name, as in "Clinton tried to out-Kennedy JFK". Until a terrible riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, Sing Sing was the most infamous prison in New York. Pinker exuberantly describes this event as the time when "Attica out-Sing Singed Sing Sing"! No one could conceivably say "out-Sing-Sang" or "out- Sang-Sang". Yet when "outsing" is derived from the verb "to sing", we tap into a different part of our internal lexicon to produce "Domingo outsang Pavarotti". All this is lively and stimulating, but how does Pinker go about testing his theory about two kinds of memory?

One approach is to look at different languages. Since 98 per cent of English nouns have a plural in s, it is hardly surprising that this is established as the default setting. Astonishingly enough, we find the same thing in German, even though only one per cent of common nouns normally do so. If we import Renault Elfs, they export Opel Kadetts. Thomas and his wife are die Manns, films about the Caped Crusader are Batmans, and a feminist might look for Manns in a piece of sexist writing. The two languages have a common origin, of course, and a common tendency to impose a regular pattern on imported foreign verbs. The key difference is that the English lost the Battle of Hastings, so Norman French became the language of the elite and about 60 per cent of our verb roots now come from French or Latin. It is not psychological factors but accidents of history which account for the dominance of a single form of regular verbs and plurals in English.

Default rules can also be found in Chinese. In English, one has to talk about "a blade of grass" and "a slice of bread" rather than "a grass" or "a bread". In Chinese, such classifiers are used with all nouns; one for groups of people, one for animals, one for small things, and so on. Exceptions are mopped up with the classifier ge. This is the word which speakers fall back on when they have a memory lapse and which young children overuse.

In trying to prove his words-and-rules thesis for regular and irregular verbs, Pinker examines language learning, speed-of-response tests, the errors of different kinds of brain-damaged patients and the evidence slowly emerging from brain scans. The result is a fascinating survey of many key areas of linguistics.

The final chapter broadens the focus. We all make frequent use of two different kinds of category: logically watertight classes and far more informal groups based on resemblances. A single concept often slides between the two. A strict definition of the term "grandmother" is appropriate for a medical researcher tracing a defective gene. Yet usually, Pinker suggests, "When people think of a grandmother, they think of grey hair and chicken soup, not of nodes in a genealogical tree" - and of somebody who looks quite unlike Tina Turner. In a context like a paternity suit, it makes sense to define "sex" to exclude fellatio; when Clinton used such legalistic logic with respect to Monica Lewinsky, he was cunningly offending against ordinary usage. Classical categories have an obvious similarity to rule-based regular verbs. Examples include "numbers, ranks, kinship terms, life stages, legal and illegal acts, and scientific theories". "Fuzzy" categories are more like irregular verbs, which mainly come in broad but unreliable family sets (bend-bent parallels send-sent, but mend-mended spoils the pattern). Cutting straight through a centuries- old philosophical dispute, Pinker argues that our brains have evolved to rely on both kinds of thinking in our struggles with the material and social worlds.

Natural languages differ greatly. Standard English verbs come in four forms (open, opens, opened and opening); Spanish and Italian verbs require about 50. Meanwhile, one Bantu language attaches prefixes and suffixes which mount up to about 500,000 combinations. Yet what they all have in common, unlike the streamlined artefact of Esperanto, tells us much about the differences between human beings and computers.

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral