The Regularization of Old English Strong Verbs: A Reanalysis of the Diachronic Evidence for how Children Learn Irregular Forms


by Katherine Wallace, University of Pennsylvania





              Liberman et. al. (2007) present historical evidence for the claim that children learn the past tenses of irregular verbs by storing them as individual items in their lexical memory and retrieving them probabilistically based on frequency.  The authors calculate the percentage of regularization in modern English of Old English strong verbs, and conclude that the regularization rate of verbs is a direct function of their frequency.  This paper tests the prediction implied by their analysis, namely that lower frequency verbs became regular earlier in the history of the language than higher frequency verbs.  Based on data from the Oxford English Dictionary about when Old English strong (irregular) verbs became regular in the history of the language, I present evidence against Liberman et. al.’s claim that verbs become weak following a radioactive decay function based upon their frequency.  I test an alternate hypothesis that irregular past-tenses are learned according to rules, finding that the frequency of similarly patterned verbs also does not clear predict when a particular verb became weak.



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