Who’da Thunk it!?

The English language has a complicated relationship with rules. Almost every major grammar rule you can think has at least a few exceptions. But then there are a few unwritten rules that English speakers adhere strictly to, even when we’re not aware of it. Still, English isn’t generally a stickler for the rules, which makes sense considering it’s quite a mongrel language. This is why I prefer to think of English as having patterns and trends, as opposed to rules. Today, I want to look at one of those trends. To do so, I’ll begin by asking you to consider what the following words have in common:

ring

swim

sing

drink

shrink

stink

(hint: I referred to the answer briefly in the first linked post above)

The answer is, that all are irregular verbs that follow the same pattern when transformed into their different verb forms. The base form has i (with the short vowel sound /I/) as in sing, the past simple has a, as in sang, and the past participle u, as in sung. This process is known as apophony, which means a sound change within a word to indicate grammatical information. This pattern evident in these irregular verbs is an example of a specific form of apophony involving changing vowel sounds known as ablaut. Ablaut can be found to varying degrees in most modern Indo-European languages. The prevalence of this process (of which ablaut reduplication, the subject of that first linked post above [the tick tock one], is also an example) is most probably due to this pattern being present in the Proto-Indo-European language. Proto-Indo-European is the single ancient language from which all modern Indo-European languages (445 in use today) developed. It’s believed to be have been spoken as a single language around 3500 BC, probably in the Pontic-Caspian steppe north of the Black Sea.

And I think that’s frankly incredible! Today, in 2017 AD (it really feels like the future when you write AD, doesn’t it?), the words we use in many different languages follow similar patterns that have lasted over 5,500 years, simply because those sounds came naturally to a small group of people living in a particular area. It’s amazing, and frankly quite moving, that we can still see their influence today. As a species we seem quite pre-occupied with the concept of legacy, and what a legacy to leave: setting the tone for the most widely-used languages on Earth. Though it’s also quite sad that it was impossible for them to foresee leaving such a legacy. I think it’s only fair to point out that it’s equally amazing that we  know about the Proto-Indo-European language thanks to the amazing work of scientists who retroactively constructed the language based on the patterns shared by modern Indo-European languages. I can’t imagine a more satisfying form of detective work.

And do you know what I also really like about ablaut?: it’s practical (apparently not everyone is interested in the grammatical intricacies of language around the Black Sea 5,500 years ago: who’da thunk it?). Irregular verbs can be quite difficult for students to figure out, as most don’t follow any particular patterns. Showing them that there are a few common verbs that follow the same pattern is a big help. Plus, if they speak an Indo-European language, that pattern will probably have a nice rhythm, making it even easier to remember.

(this is now the point where I get round to mentioning what I referred to in the title)

Ah, you might be now thinking, that could lead them astray though, because there are verbs which sound similar to ring/sing et al, but don’t follow that pattern! And you’d be right. Two of the most obvious ones are bring/brought/brought and think/thought/thought, not, of course, bring/brang/brung and think/thank/thunk.

Only, we do use thunk sometimes, don’t we? Never seriously, of course, but we do use it (and sometimes brung) in a jokey informal way, in phrases like Who’da thunk it? (told you I’d get round to it). Because that’s how it sounds, jokey and informal, a bit stupid really. But despite that, we still use it because, perhaps unconsciously, we know that it’s the logical conclusion to think/thank… Why else would we even conjure up the word, when we don’t think of jokey alternate past participles of other irregular verbs? Even if we know that the correct form is think/thought/thought, this ancient rhythm of the Kurgan tribe on the steppes by the Black Sea is still floating around the back of our mind, and makes us think of thunk. Which I find strangely touching. I think part of the reason thunk and brung sound so funny is that there’s a paradoxical tension in them between the fact that we know they’re wrong, but also instinctively feel that they’re right.

All this begs the question then: why are thunk and brung wrong? As is so often the case, I think it’s simply because they don’t sound pleasant, to most Anglophone ears anyway. Interestingly enough, things might have turned out differently. To think is derived from the Proto-Germanic thunkjan, so it’s easy to imagine that from that root we might have ended up with thunk as the past participle. Why then do thunk and brung sound so weird, that we have to use thought and brought instead? I’m sure that the Great Vowel Shift had something to do with it. But I think the real reason is a little more subjective. Thinking is quite a refined concept (unlike drinking and stinking). We respect it, and praise it, and the blunt thud of thunk, which sounds like a gangster dropping a dead body into the boot of a car, just doesn’t feel appropriate. Bringing isn’t quite at the level of thinking, but it’s still a polite verb, as it suggests that you’re bringing something to someone, so it’s got a sense of giving. Again, I’ve brung ya a nice bottle of wine! just doesn’t feel right, does it?

And I think that’s quite appropriate really. The early speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language undoubtedly developed the ablaut rhythm simply because it sounded good to them. And even if we’ve abandoned this rhythm in the case of these two verbs, at least it’s for a similar reason. I think it would be nice though to occasionally use brung or thunk and spare a thought for our ancient ancestors huddling in their huts during the long winters by the Black Sea. We have a lot to thank them for. Who’da thunk it?

10 thoughts on “Who’da Thunk it!?

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