I'm Russian native,learning German and English. I'm interested in teaching myself some linguistics.

Russian verb inflects for person, number in present and future tense; for gender in past tense. German verb inflects for person and number. English has only rudiments of inflection for person, number.

It loses any logical assumption when, for example, we assume that in Russian we need an additional mark of the subject and then we see that in different tenses we get different characteristics. (I saw an assumption on one forum that it's an additional mark if your brain missed a noun ending, which shows these characteristics)

Ok, what's about German? This language has groups of verbs which have the same ending with different categories, which again doesn't make any sense.

I don't know much about old languages. Although I saw Old-English conjugation: it's very difficult, but verb endings didn't seem to repeat in different forms. Maybe that make sense.

What made people start to use these? Especially when noun shows these categories (as in Russian). Or did the noun categories appear later in a small number of languages? Maybe you can recommend me some books.

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    I think most linguists think that they started as independent pronouns, that got fused onto the verb. As to why: what makes you expect "logic" in how languages develop? Language is a tool that people use: most people neither know nor care about whether it is "logical".
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 15, 2020 at 14:09
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    @ColinFine, thank you for your answer. I tried to find the logic of rules and expressions in the Russian and English classes at high school))) Maybe because I love mathematics and computer science))) But of course we speak so not because we know the "logic" or origin, but because we got used to speak so. Nov 15, 2020 at 15:02
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    In the case of Russian you can of course study the evolution by the forms in Proto-Slavic and before in Balto-Slavic all the way to Proto-Indo-European. You will find out how "Russian verb inflects ... for gender in past tense." is not that much correct or it is correct but inly caused by the elision of the auxiliary verb in the perfect tense. This auxiliary verb is kept in other Slavic languages. What you have in Russian now is just the participle which is a nominal form, so it behaves like a noun. Nov 15, 2020 at 18:19
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    That means before it was "она єсть пошла" while now it only is "она пошла". You will also see that Old East Slavic and Proto-Slavic had several past tenses that were conjugated normally as a verb, without any gender. The aorist and the imperfect tense. Nov 15, 2020 at 18:20
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    Inflected verbs were undoubtedly invented hundreds of thousands of years before writing was invented. Far, far beyond the reach of the Comparative Method. Every language we know of has verbs and about half or more of them are inflected verbs; and we know people have been talking at least that long and most likely much longer. So nobody will ever know who was first or how it worked; barring time travel, that knowledge is lost because sounds leave no fossils.
    – jlawler
    Nov 15, 2020 at 19:26

3 Answers 3


More theory than history for you, but one take on it:

Language evolution is an eternal tug-of-war between ease of articulation and information density. We want to say things quickly and learn how to say them easily, but we also want to be able to communicate with nuance.

English is a fairly extreme case. For regular verbs, we have only two forms across all person-gender-number combinations: I run, you run, we run, they run but he runs. However, we're hugely inefficient; we could halve our numbers right now and go with Swedish's one form for all combinations!

However, there's a tradeoff. English has six subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, we, they. Swedish has seven: jag, du, han, hon, vi, ni, de. You might argue that this is not a direct tradeoff, since the extra pronoun differentiates "you" (sg.) from "you" (pl.) rather than 3rd-person singular, but such tradeoffs generally aren't one-for-one. The point is that there's some effort needed to encode and decode meaning, and some kind of equilibrium must be maintained.

Likewise, on the opposite end of things, you have Spanish. There, you have many forms: quiero, quieres, quiere, queremos, queréis, quieren. Six forms, but guess what? No pronouns needed. Which is easier: always having to tack on "I, you, we, they" or always having to tack on "o, es, emos, eren"? In fact, are these even two different strategies from a theoretical point of view?1

Noun and pronoun classes and endings: OK, they're hard for non-natives. But they serve a purpose. They tell you the role words play in the sentence. As a Russian speaker, you'll appreciate that the meaning of Влад любит Ану and Ану любит Влад are the same. This is not the case in English, where we must obey strict rules about sentence order and avoid saying "Ana loves Vlad" if we mean that Vlad loves Ana!2

In this case, there's actually no tradeoff between encoding and decoding difficulty; rather, there are two different strategies that yield more or less equivalent results. In English, the encoder is forced to use a sentence template of a certain structure in order to yield the correct decoding, but needn't worry about word forms. In Russian, the encoder is forced to worry about word forms, but needn't worry about a sentence template.

"Aren't some strategies much worse than others?" people often ask. "I mean, I would far rather have to say things in a logical order than memorize two dozen personal pronouns in German." First, the perceived difficulty is relative to your starting point; the fewer cases and the more word order concerns you have in your native language, the harder you'll find German.3 Second, there's a pretty high limit on complexity. Children learn such things perfectly — sure, it might take longer to learn this or that feature of some language, but there's always a plateau that the vast majority reach after only a couple years.4 At that point they don't perceive it as complex (unless through analytical education...).

Sometimes the systems change. The encoder gets tired of always having to decide between "ins Bett" and "in dem Bett",5 or maybe she speaks too quickly to distinguish what she's saying anyway, or the environment is too noisy. Maybe she's speaking to a child and makes just enough mistakes that the kid fails to realize only one is correct and produces the two in free variation for the rest of his life. Luckily, the context makes it clear often enough that, lo and behold, in a few generations it's acceptable to some significant subset of the population, and a case system begins to collapse.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the southern US, someone is overheard saying too loudly, "I'm inviting you to a barbecue!" and a bystander remarks: "Um, do you mean 'you' as in 'you alone' or as in 'all of you'?" The inviter hesitatingly replies, "Er, you all. You all are invited." Soon there's an inside joke about "You all" and lo and behold, in a few generations there's a new distinction in plurality.

Then, in both cases, the desire for analogy across paradigms can suppress or reinforce the change. Like airflow on a small fire, sometimes it extinguishes what's too exceptional to keep standing out, and sometimes it feeds what's just big enough to absorb the attention.

1 Depends on the theory. Also, not all the affixes are regular, but this added difficulty is made up for in other ways.

2 I'm no native speaker of Russian; if this example doesn't work, please correct me.

3 By the by, a couple more nice things in German: adjectives are invariable after nouns, and there are no adverbs. Wait, what?! Yup... I mean, there is that function, but no form attached to it — you just use adjectives. That's an advantage over even English where someone might chide you for saying "I'm doing good" instead of "I'm doing well."

4 The same goes for phonology. Just yesterday I heard a little boy say to his mom, pointing to a closed-off trailway, "We can' go fwu daew." In a year or two he'll be able to perfectly pronounce the pesky English sequence "through there".

5 Not consciously, of course. I'm thinking of a psycholingustics lit review I did in undergrad on the hypothesis that much of the executive function related to language is selection: we are constantly selecting between alternatives, inhibiting some and okaying others that surface as speech. Anyway, not that anyone should put stock in random undergrad paper, but an interesting idea and there were some interesting findings I cobbled together to argue for it.

  • A. the enumeration on the footnotes is mixed up. B. I can confir. the X loves Y problem for German at least. It's ambiguous, underspecified, and C. will be obvious from context who's who. The Russian inflection Anu marks Ana as receiver (except perhaps if here name was Anu anyway?) D. "The encoder gets tired of always having to decide... or maybe she speaks too quickly to distinguish what she's saying anyway, or the environment is too noisy." Noise is always a matter of noise-signal-ratio in relation to the bandwidth. Too much noise satures the channel, but the signal can saturate too...
    – vectory
    Nov 17, 2020 at 17:39
  • [cont.] F.Ex., there are hundreds of phonemes, or thousands of minute phonetic differences between phonemes across language, theoretically. Speakers tend to be limited to far fewer than that and so perceive most of these as either gibberish, or as practically the same. I'd argue that this is why dative dir is used for accusative in Berlin-Brandenburger dialect in place of high German acc. dich, if the only difference is voicing of the uvular fricative after Auslautverhärtung (just a sketch, no proof). The compromise is di'. Ergo, the system can't maintain too much variation.
    – vectory
    Nov 17, 2020 at 18:01
  • [cont.] Conversely, one then has to wonder where variation comes from in the first place. It is known that similar sounds tend to diverge and allow new ones to come into being in the middle (ideally I'd remember where I read that). Many such mechanisms may exist, and you would have to go a long way before you can describe similar mechanisms for whole words. Pressumably, OE hio became she through palatization. I've seen it defended vigorously that continental Sie (OE seo) could have anything to do with it. For sake of the argument I'd accept this, but I can't shrug the feeling.
    – vectory
    Nov 17, 2020 at 18:19
  • [cont.] E. Therefore I'd argue that the complexity rises with the need to reflect the complexity of the underlying system. This is extremely difficult to characterize, really interesting. The fact that most languages tend to reach approximately the same level of a superficial measure of complexity should not yet mean that it doesn't warrant a closer look. Arguably the system collapses only if the internal differences cannot be maintained, for lack of a will or power. The mere act of changing it plays a role, too, especially for learners, so you have to take the rate of change into account.
    – vectory
    Nov 17, 2020 at 18:41

The systems employed in Germanic and Slavic result in part from inheritance from Proto-Indo-European, with changes (such as the loss of agreement in Norwegian, massive reduction in English, and the additional of gender in Russian via the past being formed with a nominal construction). We don't know for sure where verb agreement came from in the proto-language.

However, you can look at other language families and can detect the historical rise of agreement, if the language family is rich enough and the development is new enough. The Bantu languages, especially the eastern ones, have a rich system of verb inflectional morphology marking subjects (always), objects (sometimes), and any imaginable distinction in terms of events (tense, aspect, mood, attitude...). Very little of this reconstructs to the proto-language as a bound morpheme. It seems that, for agreement markers, they correspond to independent pronouns in related languages outside Bantu. So when in a Bantu language you have a prefixal agreement marker ba- referring to 3rd person plural human (which is used in addition to an actual noun like "people", thus the appearance "people they go")), in languages that broke off higher up the tree of family relations, you will find an independent pronoun, just a general "they" word, which you use only when you don't have an explicit subject ("they go", "people go"). Ga is a Kwa language more remotely related to Bantu, and it has a more mixed system that looks like simple free pronouns that gets phonologically attached to the verb and the tense marker. There seems to be a recurring pattern in languages that short words (like pronouns) which regularly appear in a specific position (for example, right before the verb), can get phonologically reduced and "attach" to the verb, making it possible to interpret the marker as a prefix (or suffix) on the verb, rather than being a separate word.

Much of the historical mechanism for creating agreement (on verbs) is the same as what is known as cliticization. Agreement is more specific, being about features of nouns whereas anything can be a clitic. In both cases, what was an independent word "attaches" to some position, and is then reinterpreted as being part of that word.


How this phenomenon appeared and why and stayed are two different problems. The former cannot be fully answered to sattisfaction I guess. The latter is a matter of inertia. Once it's there and not too much of an obstacle, it will be dragged along. One might argue that it needed an evolutionary advantage to persist, and then wonder why it went lost anyway.

It's simply a fact that the common ancestor tongue had a complicated system of inflections. Just how complex is not really settled, e.g. with respect to dual number, and not subject of this question. Russian retained a good deal of it, and innovated a little, so I'm sure you know more about that.

Germanic had basicly lost almost half of that.

While the Inflection in English might be without redundance (really), it was certainly similar enough to sound similar. Not an optimal situation for retention.

In German too a lot of endings started to sound similar. The language landscape was quite mixed at some point. Some folks just didn't grasp the difference. For example, Old Saxon died out almost completely once Wends were incorporated into Charlemanges empire and moved West.

Likewise, Normans conquered England and Old English was changed beyond recognition.

Even without foreign language speakers there is bound to be some amount of change, e.g. through social stratification and the introduction of newly repurposed pronouns that keep the inflection (ModE sg. they are for example).

The details are certainly too broad. This is a poor answer for it is what it is to say that there may be some evolutionary factos at play, but these are likely antagonistic and evenly distributed so that the effect depends heavily on the contextual situation, which is barely tangible.

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