The origins of morphological irregularity

Target audience: intermediate learners.

Consider a language with a verb ak ‘to be’. This language inflects its verbs for person like so:

  • 1st person: -i
  • 2nd person: -to
  • 3rd person: -a

This gives us the paradigm in Stage 1 of the language:

  • ak-i ‘I am’
  • ak-to ‘you are’
  • ak-a ‘he/she/it is’

But imagine this language undergoes palatalization, so Stage 2 looks like:

  • atʃ-i ‘I am’ (k > tʃ / _i)
  • ak-to ‘you are’
  • ak-a ‘he/she/it is’

Then it undergoes consonant assimilation, yielding Stage 3:

  • atʃ-i ‘I am’
  • at-to ‘you are’ (k > t / _t)
  • ak-a ‘he/she/it is’

Then unstressed vowels delete, with the following result in Stage 4:

  • atʃ ‘I am’
  • at ‘you are’ ([t] also degeminates)
  • ak ‘he/she/it is

So by the operation of a perfectly regular process of sound change, we produce a very irregular verb! See [[ Sturtevant’s paradox ]].

Notes mentioning this note


I write a newsletter for people who love language. I write about linguistics, language learning, and writing – in other words, how languages work, how to learn them, and what to do with the ones you've learned. Sign up here:

    Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.