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In at least the languages that I know or have been learning (Japanese, Filipino, English, Spanish), the conjugation of verbs has always been a stumbling block. Conjugation is utterly confusing with so many rules and exceptions (regular and irregular).

I wonder if this has anything to do with the evolution of language or it is a historical thing or is it a matter of ease of usage or otherwise? Why are there so many exceptions to the rule, and confusing rules (aside from the straightforward rules)?

  • With the possible exception of constructed languages like the Lojban and Esperanto families, languages aren't "pure"; they're the present result of a somewhat chaotic process of evolution, assimilation, oppression, reconstruction, and so on. Thus, they'll absorb vocabulary and grammar from all those multiple sources, and where the source language doesn't have the same rules as the hypothetical "pure" form of the language at hand, you'll get irregularities. – Jeff Zeitlin Sep 6 at 3:42
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    Spanish verbs are very easy to conjugate once you know the system – there are relatively few exceptions (apart from a manageable number of slightly irregular preterites; English ones are even easier, having a maximum of eight distinct forms (and only one verb has that many). Japanese verbs, too, virtually all follow the same pattern. What’s complex is learning the actual system/pattern, because there are so many ways to organise all the aspects verbs can express (subject, TAM, voice, etc.). But it’s not just verbs; e.g., Finnish adjectives have about 435 forms + possible suffixes). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 6 at 10:15
  • Simple answer is that languages can grow as complex and full of rules, exceptions, and ambiguities as baby brains can handle them. As long as a baby can absorb the patterns by exposure, there's nothing holding back the language from random mutations and variations. The one thing languages can't do is to grow into shapes that infants can't acquire (cause if they did, that change is never transmitted to new native speakers). Babies don't learn conjugations by making sense out of rules, so there's no pressure for the rules to be simple. – melissa_boiko Sep 6 at 20:08
  • I don’t think the languages you mention have complex verb inflection. The Northwest Caucasian languages, Greenlandic and many Native American languages are much more complex. As for the why, this is how languages evolve. In general, words become clitics which in turn become affixes. In many languages, for example, the affixes attaches to finite verbs are very similar to the possessive affixes on nouns. What gets generally lost in the course of simplification are participles. E.g., PIE had hundreds of participial forms (still preserved in, say,Lithuanian) but in most languages they’re gone. – Atamiri Sep 7 at 10:58
  • @Atamiri PIE did not have hundreds of participial forms – in fact, some (though not many) would argue that PIE did not have true participles at all. You might just about be able to reach 100 forms with all cases of all participles (-no-, -to-, -mh1no-, -u̯ōt-, -ont-… that’s 90, any more?), but not much more. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 at 0:11
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I don't think verbs are more confusing per se; instead, verbs tend to have more forms than nouns do. The reason for this comes from the role of verbs versus nouns in sentences, what kind of semantic distinctions are marked in what kind of clauses, and the "centrality" of nouns vs. verbs in certain kinds of clauses.

Verbs are essential in propositions, and there are very many linguistically-expressed notions that relate to propositions, such as when an action took place, how it did, whether it did (or are you denying that it took place) and so on. A sensible and therefore evolutionarily likely outcome is that if you are going to single out a single word for bearing the marker of time reference, "aspect", mood and so on, that is, the meanings in the predicate, then the verb is the best place to put those markers. Likewise, it is sensible to indicate in a sentence what thing is the subject and what is the object, and subject-marking & object-marking on verbs is functionally sensible. The verb is not the only possible place to indicate such things, but marking properties that affect the interpretation of the predicate should be within the predicate, and if you plan to put all of this on the direct object, you better come up with an alternative plan if there is no direct object. Thus there's a bias in favor of adding things to the verb, but not an absolute necessity. A second contributing factor is that complex morphology on verbs which expands the meaning of the predicate historically tends to come from contraction of Auxiliary Verb + Verb Phrase (in VO languages) or Verb Phrase + Auxiliary Verb (in OV languages), for example "can go", "might have gone".

Certain things are most efficiently conveyed on the noun phrase, such as its number, or functional role (as agent, vs. instrument); or the fact of a thing being possessed. There seem to be more kinds of meaning properties that pertain to the predicate than which pertain to arguments in a proposition, so verb inflection tends to be bigger than noun inflection. As for being confusing or, specifically, irregular, I don't think anyone has computed an "irregularity" function for English that yields an irregularity index for nouns vs. verbs, scaled to account for the fact that verbs have significantly more inflectional possibilities than nouns do.

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As I used to tell my students,

Verbs have more fun

Every clause has a verb form in it, and there are always more things you can do to a verb than to a noun. In Latin, for instance, nouns are marked (or "declined", into declensions) for person, number, gender, and case. Verbs, however, are marked (or "conjugated" into conjugations) for tense, voice, mood, aspect, person, and number. The person and number usually get copied from the subject, but marked on the verb.

And this is not the end. The Roman grammarians that distinguished between noun and verb (but not between noun and adjective -- that's another story), also distinguished between verbs and participles. A participle -- like broken or breaking in English, which we consider forms of the verb root break -- was not considered a verb in Latin grammar, but rather its own part of speech.

This was not surprising, since Latin had a LOT of participles, distinguished by voice, mood, aspect, number, and gender (the latter two often copied from a modified noun). So participles formed paradigms and needed to be conjugated, too, though they didn't have tenses and they didn't necessarily agree with their subjects.

And this was just Latin, a close relative of English. Though Modern English is quite different.

Take a language like Turkish for comparison; like Latin, it has a lot of suffixes. Turkish nouns can take a lot but Turkish verbs can take many more. Note that Turkish paradigms are different -- most of them are simple and one-dimensional, with one or a few choices, or zero, followed by another one-dimensional paradigm, [almost ad infinitum][3]. Turkish grammar is very regular, but that regularity is governed by verb roots, which must be learned (and are learned, by children, without difficulty).

There are languages without much in the way of inflection, which is what is going on in Latin and Turkish conjugations. Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, and English all have little or no conjugation. Every verb in Turkish has several hundred forms; but the only verb in English with more than 4 forms is "be": be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. That's 8 forms. Most English verbs have 3: type, typed, typing; they might as well only have one. And many do: set, set, set; cut, cut, cut; quit, quit, quit.

Verb forms are on the way out in English.

But these languages are just as hard as the ones with a lot of inflection. They have syntax, instead, and it's complicated.

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    Er, I think you’re one off in your English verb form count. Most English verbs have four forms: type, types, typed, typing; some have five (sing, sings, sang, sung, singing); and only be has more. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 at 20:56
  • Right. I keep forgetting 3spr. – jlawler Sep 8 at 23:12
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    “Latin had a LOT of participles”— huh? I'm aware of three: perfect passive, present active, future active. – Anton Sherwood Sep 21 at 4:32
  • That's true, but Latin participles were conjugated and/or declined, with paradigms aplenty, whereas English participles are fixed forms. – jlawler Sep 21 at 14:39

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