Linguists versus normal people

Linguists and normal people can be quite different. Here’s one way.


A difference between linguists and normal people: non-linguists get excited about irregular things in language, while linguists mostly don’t.  I can hardly go to a wedding, bar mitzvah, or quinceañera–any place where you meet new people, basically–without someone saying “isn’t it funny how the plural of foot is feet?”… or something along those lines.  From a linguist’s point of view, the irregular ones are the easy ones–for a child to learn them, all they have to do is remember them.  In contrast, for the regular forms, the child actually has to figure out a system–a much more abstract problem.  From another perspective, suppose that your job (like mine) has to do with figuring out how to make computers process language.  The irregular things are easy–there’s a limited number of them, so the program can just look them up.  In contrast, the regular ones are essentially infinite (languages add new words all the time, and they’re almost always regular), so the computer has to be able to figure them out somehow (and that’s how I stay employed).  So, linguists mostly aren’t that interested in irregular forms–regular ones are much more what we’re trying to figure out. But, one needs to know the irregular verbs–hence this post about verbs that are irregular in the future tense.  (See here for verbs that are regular in the future tense.)  Of course, like the majority of verbs, the frequency of any of these (irregular) verbs is quite low, so Zipf’s Law comes into effect–see below for how that led to an embarrassing incident for me in a bookstore.

The good news about verbs that are irregular in the future tense in French is that the inflections stay the same.  The bad news is, there are still a lot of verbs that manage to be irregular.  I’ll try to arrange them in some sort of structured way that makes it easier to see what kinds of patterns tend to recur in the irregularities.  Note: Watch the pronunciation of these–some of them are non-intuitive.  I suggest listening to the recordings on this page on the Tex’s French Grammar web site.

There are two things that make memorizing the irregular future tense forms a bit less intimidating:

  • The inflections (endings for person and number) are the same even in irregular futures.
  • There’s always going to be an r.

OK, let’s try to group these. What we’d like to find is groups where a particular infinitive form maps to a particular irregularity–not always possible, but when we can, it should help us in our memorization. Throughout, I’ll give the il/elle/on form of the conjugated verb.  Note that some verbs may show up in more than one
grouping. Don’t see that as a problem—see it as an extra opportunity to remember
the form.

One pattern is that roots that do not have a d get a d added in the future tense.

venir viendra
tenir tiendra
obtenir obtiendra

Do those have anything in common?  Hells yeah–the root ends with -enir.

Some verbs with an l lose it when this picking-up-a-d thing happens:

falloir faudra
vouloir voudra

Another pattern is that some verbs end up with a double r, sometimes losing the final consonant of the root in the process:

mourir mourra
courir courra
envoyer enverra
pouvoir pourra
voir verra

Here’s a pattern where oi goes away, leaving behind a v:

devoir devra
pleuvoir pleuvra
recevoir recevra

There’s one that I can’t make fit into any other grouping, and it’s one with an embarrassing story attached to it.  I went into a great travel book store in Paris (Librairie Ulysse on the Ile Saint-Louis) and asked for books about Benin.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  Are you going to Benin?  asked the owner.  I don’t know–I have an application in to a volunteer program there, I answered.  When will you saurez?, she asked.  I stood there with a panicked look on my face until I remembered that saurez is the irregular future tense of the verb savoir, “to know.”

savoir saura

There are some super-irregular ones that are very important, just because they occur very
frequently: être (to be), aller (to go), and faire (to do, to make).  This post is long enough already, so we’ll come back to these another time.

Remember: from a linguist’s point of view, the irregular verbs are the easy ones. So:
no complaining—just memorize them with me! And, if you can come up with any patterns/groupings that I missed, I would love to hear about them.

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