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Have You Ever Shruck?

“Remember the time in 2003 when Bartlett came to work all hung over?” Laughs. “Nothing ever changes.”
[Bush] continued: “We never shruck—”
“Shirked!” someone yelled.
“Shirked,” Bush corrected, smiling. “You might have shirked; I shrucked. I mean we took the deals head on.”

This is an excerpt from an account of George W. Bush’s farewell party at the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo (which I know better as a middling swing dance venue; apparently the better places were all booked).

A number of people have been making hay about Bush’s creative past tense inflection of the verb shirk. This is probably because it fits with the general perception of Bush as barely literate. Not to defend one of the nation’s most disastrous presidents, but shirk is actually a hard verb to decline.

The Psychology of the Past Tense

Most of us were taught in school that to make the past tense of a verb (walk) you add an -ed (walked). Of course it turns out there are some irregular verbs (ran, slept) which have to be memorized as such. A simple theory would just state that these exceptions are on a metaphoric list: when an English speaker wants to put a verb into the past tense, she checks the list of exceptions first. If the verb is on the list, she uses that irregular form; if not, she adds -ed.

This seems like a decent theory, but it doesn’t quite work. This is because people are perfectly capable of coming up with new irregular past tense forms. Suppose you heard a verb splink, which means to fall into a pool of water. What do you think the past tense would be? Many people would guess splunk. Our list model can’t explain this, since that irregular isn’t on the list. However, it seems clear where splunk comes from: it’s an anology to sink-sunk.

In fact, historically some verbs have become irregular. Once upon a time, the past tense of creep was creeped. So clearly people are capable of inventing new irregular forms that aren’t on the metaphoric list.

The Past Tense Wars

How to fix this model was the focus of the far-reaching Past Tense Debate, in which I was once a minor participant. Although everybody’s theory came to predict new irregular forms, none of the theories were very good at predicting a particular form (why splunk instead of splought, on analogy to think-thought? For some very interesting recent work on this problem, check out a series of recent papers by Adam Albright).

When I was doing this work, I would present participants with made up verbs and ask them to give me a past tense. I got a lot of responses like splunk, but I also got very odd responses. It was not infrequent for a person to add or subtract a consonant (sadly, I don’t remember any of the best examples). Many looked a good deal like turning shirk to shruck. Granted, few people made such big mistakes on the real words (other than the infamous brung), but it seems clear Bush has a deficiency in (linguistic) planning and monitoring, so one would expect his irregularizations to be more prominent. (I’m actually sympathetic to the linguistic malady, at least, since I’m similarly inarticulate when speaking off the cuff.)

Parting Thoughts

As usual, Language Log got to this topic first and used much more impressive vocabulary (e.g., “metathetic”).




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