07 December 2009

seek and ye shall not find

morphological revelations on my morning comb through twitter and facebook statuses:

whoa. on the other hand, this isn't entirely unexpected. morphology tends to be entropic, that is, it favors simplicity and regularity and minimal expression, and moves in that direction over time. this doesn't mean the language apocalypse is upon us any more than the heat death of the universe, as predicted by physical entropy, is. just like physical entropy, language entropy can be locally reduced by other factors, particularly token frequency. that is to say—in the broadest terms—speakers are likelier to hang on to irregular forms of words that are used all the time, and tend to regularize words that aren't as common.

that brings me to my "whoa" moment. i just hadn't realized that 'seek' was possibly on the cusp of regularization. so the question is, how does 'seek'/'sought' stack up to other verbs with past tense forms in -ought? to get a comprehensive list, i turned to a reverse dictionary, which yielded just five non-compound -ought pasts: bought, fought, thought, brought, and our test case, sought. next to test their frequencies i headed to wordcount.org, a nifty visualization of frequency in the British National Corpus. admittedly the BNC might not give the most precise results for predicting the tendencies of young speakers in Michigan, but should be accurate enough. here are their ranks (not token counts; smaller numbers indicate higher frequency):

buy/bought: 785/1129
fight/fought: 1484/3204
think/thought: 102/152*
bring/brought: 631/461
seek/sought: 1875/1895

the data reveals that i perhaps shouldn't be as surprised as i was. 'seek' is the least frequent of the five verbs, although strangely 'fought' is the least frequent past tense form. i starred 'thought' since its frequency is probably affected considerably by use of the noun 'thought'. also of note is the fact that 'bring' is the only item whose past tense is more frequent than the base form; this is due to the fact that 'bring' requires a progressive present tense ("I bring the wine" ≠ "I am bringing the wine" but rather "I (habitually) bring the wine"). despite—or perhaps owing in part to—its frequency, 'bring' is subject to taking on a different irregular pattern, 'bring'/'brang'/'brung' in many children's speech and some adult dialects.

anyhow, to wrap this up, it looks like 'sought' might well be the best candidate of these forms to undergo regularization, even if i hadn't expected it before. the only other form that might do the same is 'fought'-->'fighted', but i think that would be even more surprising...i'm actually wondering why its frequency turned out to be so low in the BNC.

a postscript: although i certainly have 'sought' as the past tense of 'seek' in its basic sense "to look for", 'seeked' is also in my lexicon. it's the past tense of the relatively new lexical item 'seek' "to move rapidly through a video or audio clip". 'sought' is terrible as its past tense:

i seeked ahead 2 minutes to skip the commercials.
*i sought ahead 2 minutes to skip the commercials.

this kind of regularization is a common symptom of generating a new, distinct lexical entry from an existing form, cf. the classic case bad/worse/worst vs. bad/badder/baddest.

[UPDATE] regarding 'wrought', which is very low frequency, and i (rightly) eliminated from consideration as not being a productive past form. i commented the following on the ongoing facebook thread that prompted this all:
'wrought' is a strange case...it's actually the old past participle of 'work' (e.g. "wrought iron" = "worked iron" ≠ "wreaked iron"), and the historical past tense of 'wreak' is regular 'wreaked'. they got conflated because both 'work' and 'wreak' were used in the "____ havoc" idiom. since 'wrought' is almost never used outside the idiom any more, it probably doesn't fit into the regularization question here.

5 comments:

John Lawler said...

Oh, I dought that it's on the cusp of regularization.
There's too many fixed phrases: "sought him out", "sought him in vain", even "sought after him" (which does demonstrate that the verb is on the cusp of developing an intransitive subcategorization, however).

More likely his World History class didn't know what "irregular verb" means, and thought it was a quiz.

Ed Cormany said...

terrifying Ghit numbers:

"sought him out" 180,000
"seeked him out" 42,300

...but:

"sought after him" 1,320,000
"seeked after him" 627

"sought him in vain" 1,200,000
"seeked him in vain" 2

standard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
panjandrum said...

Well presumably "work" and "wreak" are variants of the same thing.

reineke said...

Ha ha! Awesome! I seeked as well. We shall prevail!