LINGUIST List 10.242

Tue Feb 16 1999

Sum: "saw"~"taw"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Sean Jensen, Summary: "saw"~"taw"

Message 1: Summary: "saw"~"taw"

Date: Mon, 15 Feb 1999 02:18:13 -0000
From: Sean Jensen <>
Subject: Summary: "saw"~"taw"


Last week I posted this query

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I wonder if anyone can point me at literature/anecdote/opinion about the

SEE is a verb; TEE is a (golfing) verb. In my capacity as a naive native
speaker I seem to have far less of a problem analysing SEED as a "badly
made" past tense of SEE than I do analysing "TAW" as a "badly made" past
tense of TEE. In fact the latter strikes me as the sort of excrutiating
analogy only a desparate punster (or linguist) could come up with.

Does TAW strike everyone as being much worse than SEED, or are there some
amongst you for whom SEED is just as "opaque", or even those for whom SEED
is more "opaque" than TAW?
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I received a reassuring 15 responses. The overwhelming weight of opinion is
behind an argument that runs something like the following, from Tessa Say's
response. Subscribers who wish to sample the other responses should contact

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Essentially, the argument is that regular past tenses are
the result of a rule-based mental process which adds the -ed
ending to a verb stem. Thus only the stems of
regular verbs need be stored. Irregular past tenses on the
other hand are stored alongside their corresponding stems.
The rule, then, is the default and may apply to irregular
verbs when memory fails - children may come out with
'bringed' or 'knowed' when they don't know the correct form -
i.e. they are applying the default rule to a verb with a
regular stem. Adults, given a new verb or a foreign word
will also use the default rule to form the past tense - e.g.
fax-ed, blomph-ed (or any wacky verb you care to make up)
Irregular patterns, because they are stored in memory,
overgeneralise only when there is phonological similarity -
so kids sometimes come out with 'brang' because 'bring'
sounds like 'sing', 'ring, 'drink' and 'begin'. These sorts
of 'errors' are extremely rare in children's speech though.
For this to happen it is generally necessary for the verb
types on which the analogy is based to have either a high
type frequency (there are lots of them) or high token
frequencies (they are extremely common in the language).
'See' can easily be erroneously inflected as 'seed' and still
sound ok becuase because it is merely application of the
default rule - children in fact may come out with this form.
'Taw' sounds odd because the irregular pattern on which it is
based (see-saw) does not have a high type frequency - try and
think how many English verbs follow the -ee/-aw pattern - and
'saw' (without a frequency dictionary to hand) probably has
only a medium token frequency. The type frequency appears to
be more crucial than token frequency anyway.

Tessa Say
Department of Language & Linguisticss
University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park,
Colchester CO3 4SQ.
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Sean Jensen

tel/fax: 86 20 8736 0065
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