Episode 56: The Weak vs The Strong

Do you say ‘dived’ or ‘dove’? How about ‘shrank’ or ‘shrunk’? And when do you say ‘hanged’ instead of ‘hung’? We’ll explore the answers to these questions in this episode. The answers lie in the history of the English language – and specifically the distinction between so-called ‘weak’ verbs and ‘strong’ verbs.


36 thoughts on “Episode 56: The Weak vs The Strong

  1. I can say both dived and dove, but dived, like hanged, has a much more specific semantic context. I would say “he dived (or went diving) last weekend” in he context of scuba diving, or I might say “he dived/dove for the ring at the bottom of the pool.” Basically, if a person is already in the water and going deeper, it’s dived. All other contexts (including aquatic animals), it’s dove.

    • Strong verbs and irregular plurals sometimes apply only to the literal meaning, and if they’re used for a secondary meaning they become weak or regular. So “He hung the picture” vs “He hanged the prisoner.” If you say “He hung the prisoner”, it sounds like he put him up on a wall and didn’t necessarily kill him, or that the speaker incorrectly used hang instead of hung.

      Likewise, the plural of “child” is “children”, but multiple members of the family Fairchild are “the Fairchilds” not “the Fairchildren”. The latter has an intrusive connotation of children. There are other nouns like this where the irregular plural is only for the basic literal meaning, and figurative or secondary meanings require a regular plural. If you use the irregular plural intending the secondary meaning, the primary meaning intrudes and causes absurd connotations.

      This may be the distinction between dove/dived. I normally say “dove” (I’m American). I’m not sure if I’d ever say “He dived for the ring.” But if I did, it would probably be because “He dove” implies a complete dive (e.g., jumping from a diving board into the water), and this action wasn’t a complete dive (e.g., just pushing yourself toward something).

      In German, hangen/hängen are different verbs. German often modifies a strong verb to make it causative, and the derived verb is weak. Hangen/hängen, fallen/fällen, steigen/steigern. “Das Bild hing” vs “Er hängte das Bild”. “Der Baum fiel.” (The tree fell.) vs “Er fällte den Baum.” (He felled the tree.) So English has the same fall/fell variation. Re hanging a person for execution, German uses “henken”. That may be a derived causative verb, possibly from a dialect.

      • Fot the sake of completeness:
        There is no verb ‘hangen’ in German, at least not in modern German in Germany. ‘Hangen’ is Swiss-German dialect. It might be used in Bavaria though, but it is not considered standard German, or ‘High German’.
        There is no entry for ‘hangen’ in “Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen”.
        As to “Re hanging a person for execution, German uses “henken”.” While this is correct, German also uses ‘hängen’ in this case. Actually ‘hängen’ is much more common for hanging a person for execution.
        Even in literary language ‘henken’ is rarely used. It is becoming more and more outdated.

  2. I have never heard an Australian seriously use “dove” as the past tense of “dive”. I tend to use “dreamed” and “learned” rather than dreamt and learnt, but that is a question of spelling rather than pronunciation. I heard of the podcast just a month ago and am obsessed by it. I have just caught up with the comment by Veronica

    • Many of these variations are indeed regional, being found more in some dialects than others. I suspect that the US media influence will cause some of these more American variations to spread far and wide over the next few decades. If so, you will probably hear someone saying ‘dove’ pretty soon (and they won’t be referring to a bird).

  3. I hear Grimms Law being repeatedly illustrated by Kevin
    who invariably speaks of “Ladin” used in the “Lade Roman period” Time here is 0745 on 7 April 2016 as I listen to Episode 57

  4. Nowadays, Germans are still confused if they have hanged or hung a picture on the wall. “ich habe gehangen”/ I have hung, or “ich habe gehängt”/ I have hanged. Please note that the a is prounced like your u and the ä like your a, so even the sounf of german and English is the same here. People get even more confused, when you do this to people. They think, the “Henker” is a hang-man, who hangs people. But he’s actually an executioner, who could also use a sword, for example. If somebody was “gehenkt”, he was killed by the “Henker”, not necessarily hanged.

  5. i’d always assumed that hanged was only used when someone was executed. Which makes sense gieven the legal background. But if someone fell off a cliff I would say they hung on for dear life … Or could I say he hanged on for dear life? It doesn’t actually sound completely wrong …

    • I think the correct form would be “hung on for dear life.” (Though some grammarians may disagree.) “Hanged” is usually reserved for the literal hanging of a person by the neck.

      • I think it would more likely be “clung on for dear life”. Clung as opposed to clinged, which has never been correct, has it?

    • I personally would love to see the return of “snew” as a possible past tense. It sounds like something from Dr. Seuss.

  6. I have always pronounced the past tense of “burn,” “learn,” “spill,” etc with an “ed” sound, because my tongue is in the back when I say those words and therefore closer to the “d” sound; when I noticed that that form was spelled with a “t” in British past tenses, I figured it was because if you say those words in BBC-type English, with the non-rhotic R, as in “buhnt”, it’s more natural for the tongue, positioned closer to the front teeth, to hit a “t” sound than “d.” // Thanks for your continued exploration of all this!

    • I think those ‘-t’ forms pre-date the loss of the ‘r’ in most cases, but it is an interesting theory. I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast.

  7. A couple of episodes ago I mentioned the Lancashire dialect which is heavily influenced by Norse. Generally in Lanky all past tense endings of -ed in Standard English are pronounced -t. The past tense of “burn” is interesting: in Lanky it is both strong AND weak as the past tense is “brunt”.

  8. I always use the -t forms like learnt (I tend to think of learned as two syllables) and knelt. I’d say they’re still pretty common in the UK, though the -ed forms are also used.

    There’s another class of verbs that are half strong and half weak – catch/caught, teach/taught, buy/bought. Although they don’t particularly look like it now, they’re essentially verbs where the vowel mutates and a -t is also added. I don’t know if that’s a compromise, or if they descend from an original in-between class.

  9. I discovered this podcast earlier this year and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you for such an interesting program. The verb that has always puzzled me is the word “said”. As a child the spelling of it always confused me. I eventually worked out that if sounded phonetically it sounded like ‘sayed’, which makes sense as a past tense verb. Was said actually pronounced as sayed at some time in the past?

    • The ‘d’ at the end of ‘said’ was certainly derived from the common ‘-ed’, ‘-d’ and ‘-t’ suffixes that we use to express past tense. However, the past tense form of the word was usually rendered as a single syllable in Old English – often with a separate inflectional ending attached to that root depending on how it was used in the sentence. The main point is that ‘said’ is very old and basically goes back to Old English.

  10. Hi! I was listening to this particular episode once again and realized that know of a dialectical variation of a verb you never mentioned, and it’s one that I use on a regular basis. The “correct” version of the past tense of drag is dragged. I don’t use that. I actually use ‘drug’: He got drug off the road. I drug the bag outside. I think it’s a “southern” dialect thing with American English, though I’m not entirely sure.

    • That word actually came up in my research for this episode. If I recall correctly, it is strictly an Americanism – though it may have become a bit more widespread due to the influence of American media and popular culture.

  11. I have been slowly but surely working my way through the episodes, and the main issue I have been wondering about with verbs was not mentioned.

    When I was younger, you read the -t past tense endings in books and in magazines, e.g. knelt. Now you never see this ending — almost all weak verbs seem to be shoehorned into the -ed ending. This feels like a terrible loss to me. You mentioned the shift in strong verbs to weak, as in dove to dived (this also feels wrong to me) but not the shift from -t to -ed. These sound and feel very different to me. Am I the only one this bothers, and am I the only one this forced shift bothers?

    • Hi Maryann. There are lots of examples of the phenomenon you describe. For example, “burned” vs ‘burnt.” The word “slept” also survives vs the word “sleeped” which is nonexistent as far as I know. I think the ‘-t’ suffix is much more common in British English, but it has eroded within American English. I suspect that the long-term trend will be in favor of a somewhat standard ‘-ed’ suffix for past tense verbs, and it will impact both the ‘-t’ suffix, as well as weak verbs with irregular past tense forms.

  12. You say new verbs usually have the weak form, and I’m not disagreeing.
    But for some reason ‘to ping’ imo really begs a past participle of ‘pung’!

  13. Amazing work Kevin, keep it up! Have you heard of a trug? It’s a kind of wooden basket, supposedly endemic to Sussex. I’ve always thought it was related to draw/drag. The g at the end of trug suggests Norse influence, but I think Sussex was probably the least Viking part of England. Maybe Vikings landed on the coast and changed an Old English trudge/tray/trough into a more Nordic trug.

    With strong verbs, it’s interesting how the past tense of ‘snick’ is definitely ‘snicked’, even though you might expect ‘snuck’ on the analogy of dig, hang, swing &c. But to me (an Englishman) ‘snuck’ sounds more natural than ‘sneaked’ as the past tense of ‘sneak’, even though no other verbs with use a similar past tense with . ‘Sneaked’ just doesn’t feel right to me, but ‘snicked’ does.

  14. Fun hanged/hung story:

    Student watching an historical film when a condemned man’s legs suddenly appear at the top of the frame: Oh! Is that guy hung?

    Cheeky Classmate: Gee, I don’t know…

  15. Interesting. I suspect that a lot of these invented “strong” past tense verbs have as much to do with the ease, or awkwardness, of attaching a spoken ed ending. With sneak, for example, the transition from the k to the d sounds is tricky, especially following a long e vowel sound. Try doing it with a head cold! I think that’s why people instinctively want to say slept instead of sleeped. Something about way you transition the aspiration from mouth to nose.

  16. Regarding those past tense verbs where /t/ is being supplanted by /d/, e.g. smelled, burned, learned, etc., I believe this is mostly a natural result of phonological voicing by assimilation. The nasal and liquid sounds in the examples above (/n/,/r/, and /l/ are all voiced by necessity, which in turn leads to the final stop /t/ likewise becoming voiced to /d/.

    To be clear, I’m not an expert or professional linguist by any stretch, but these sound changes are what one would have expected to happen.

  17. This episode got me thinking about one strong verb you didn’t mention – to bring. In the local dialect where I grew up people would use ‘brung’ as the past tense. I’m assuming this is a local innovation based on other verbs, and not an old holdover from an earlier form of the word.

  18. In British English, “sit” is both transitive and intransitive. We would say, “She is sitting the child down to eat some cake,” and, “She sits down to eat some cake.” We would “set the cake down” – “sit” is for animate things, and “set”is for inanimate ones.

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