Language Change through Forgetting

Languages are passed down through generations because people remember them. But languages also change as they’re passed down, and often this is exactly because people don’t remember parts of them. They forget things it might not seem possible to forget, like the meanings of common words and the conjugation of normal verbs. This is possible because the forgetting is usually generational rather than individual; the speaker community as a whole forgets, in the sense that it loses information it once had, but only because the speakers learn a language slightly different from the language their elders attempted to teach them. What follows are a few types of generational forgetting that can cause languages to change, with examples drawn mostly from English for maximum alienation.

Word boundary confusion

Imagine hearing the sequence of words like “What’s up?” and misanalyzing it as “What sup?” Now imagine no one ever corrected you and you spent the rest of your life believing the phrase was “What sup?” and teaching it to your children in that form. (If you thought about it, maybe you’d decide that sup was a noun that meant “news” or “general state of affairs.”) It seems unlikely, but this is more or less what happened with a number of words in English. The canonical example is apron, which actually comes from the Old French word naperon, ultimately from Latin mappa meaning “napkin.” In the mid-15th century, Middle English speakers heard “a nap(e)ron” and understood it as “an apron.” Ultimately it was this misanalyzed form that won out and was passed down. Much the same thing happened with the words umpire (from Old French nonper, “odd number,” a third party who mediates a dispute) and adder (from Old English næddre), as well as a few other obscure words no longer in common currency. The opposite process, the addition of an n to the beginning of a word, took place in nickname (formerly eke name) and newt (formerly ewte).

Word boundary confusion is relatively common (although not actually common) in English because of our indefinite article a/an, but it’s happened elsewhere too. The English and French word orange comes (via Medieval Latin) from Italian arancia, which was formerly narancia; the loss of the initial n is believed to be at least partly due to the n in the Romance indefinite article, une/una. Spanish, which like Italian took its word for the fruit from Arabic naranj, preserved the initial n in naranja. Another example is the French word for “navel,” nombril, which comes from Old French lombril, originally l’ombril.

Defective verbs

A defective verb is one that can’t appear in all the forms you would expect to be possible. So, for example, the English verb beware can appear in the imperative (“Beware the Ides of March!”) and the infinitive (“I told him to beware the Ides of March”), but it can’t be conjugated in the indicative: “I beware dangerous-looking people” sounds pretty weird (cf. “I am wary of dangerous-looking people”), and just try to form a past tense—”I bewore”? “I bewared”?

The case of “beware” illustrates what a defective verb is, but it itself isn’t defective as the result of forgetting—as you can tell by looking at it, it ultimately comes from something like be wary, so it never had any other forms to be forgotten. Some verbs, however, are defective as a result of forgetting. For example, there is the English past tense verb quoth, which is so archaic it might have passed out of the language if not for Edgar Allen Poe’s famous use of it (“Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'”). From the looks of it you might think it was related to the verb quote, but it turns out it isn’t. Quote comes from Latin (ultimately from quot, “how many?”), while quoth is from an Old English verb quethan, related to the (also somewhat archaic) words bequeath and bequest. Thanks to Poe we remember quoth, but we’ve forgotten everything but its past tense (“The raven will quoth”? “The raven wants to queath”?). Thanks to legalese we remember the verb bequeath, but because in that case it’s a present-tense form that’s been preserved (“I give and bequeath”), we can easily reconstruct the rest of the paradigm on command, so bequeath hasn’t become defective in modern English—”he bequeaths,” “we bequeathed,” “Bequeath!”

Another example of a defective verb that results from forgetting is wrought, which appears only in the past tense and past participle (like in wrought iron). Again the survival of this one form is due in large part to a fixed phrase popularized by a nineteenth-century genius, in this case Samuel Morse, who chose the Biblical quote “What hath God wrought?” to be the first message sent via his new invention, the telegraph. The case of wrought is a bit weirder than that of quoth, though, because we haven’t actually forgotten the verb wrought comes from. Wrought is actually an old past tense of the verb work. Does it seem odd that two such different words could be forms of the same verb? It did to our linguistic ancestors, which is why they regularized the past tense of work to worked, leaving wrought as a sort of orphan whose parentage had been forgotten.


Suppletive words are somewhat similar to defective verbs, but instead of lacking forms entirely, they fill them in with forms from an entirely different word. The English verb go is a perfect example: most of its forms (go, goes, gone) look pretty similar, but it’s difficult to imagine the past tense form went being at all related. That’s because it isn’t; it actually comes from the past tense of the verb wend, which has almost disappeared from modern English but still appears in the phrase “to wend one’s way.” Interestingly enough, when suppletion happens it’s usually in very common words. Some other examples in English include person (ultimately from Etruscan phersu, “mask”; the plural people is from Latin populus, sometimes thought to be from an Etruscan root as well), good (better and best are from an old root that also survives in “to boot“), and bad (worse and worst are from an Indo-European root that also underlies war). How did speakers of English first decide that the past tense of go was went, etc.? For one thing, at the time the meanings of go and wend were much closer than they are now; perhaps there was no semantic difference at all between the two, at least in the past tense. It also may or may not be relevant that the old past tense of go wasn’t goed or something else regular, but ēode, which may be distantly related to go but certainly doesn’t show it.

Metaphors and semantic change

This is perhaps the broadest category of change through forgetting that I’m including here, but I’ll only touch relatively briefly on it. Take the example of the English words alive, life and live, which are clearly related to each other but look very different from equivalent words in Indo-European languages outside Germanic: Latin vivus, Russian zhivoj, Greek bios, Sanskrit vas, and Lithuanian gývas, for example. All of these non-Germanic words come from the Proto-Indo-European root *gʷiHu̯o– (pronounced something like “gwihwo”) , which meant “live.” English, though, got life etc. from the Proto-Indo-European root *leip-, which meant “adhere, be sticky,” and by extension “remain.” (This same sense evolution has taken place in English, where “stick around” is a slangy way of saying “remain.”) Already in Proto-Germanic (the ancestor language of English, German, Dutch, and all the other Germanic languages) this root had acquired the meaning live, and by Early Modern English it had entirely replaced the English descendant of *gʷiH₃-u̯o-.

But what was this English descendant, the cognate of vivus, bio, etc.? Surprisingly, it’s a word that’s still common today: quick. The King James Version of the Bible, completed in 1611 but consciously employing many already archaic forms, preserves a familiar example of quick in its old sense in the phrase “the quick and the dead.” Reinterpreted today (for example, in the title of a western whose tagline is “Think You’re Quick Enough?”) as implying that slow people may as well be dead, it actually meant just “the living and the dead.”

In this double example, we’ve forgotten that our word for “live” once meant “stick around” and our word for “quick” once meant “alive.” This is an example of what’s called semantic drift, a process that depends on generational forgetting.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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