Why do English verbs inflect so little, especially in regard to "person"?



Most Indo-European languages have verbs which endings change according to the person. I made a table with the most common (and close) languages and focussed on the category of person and the present tense, for reasons of space. The endings for each conjugation have been highlighted in red and separated from the root.

English-Italian-German-Spanish-French inflection comparison table
If you find mistakes, tell me, I'll correct them and upload the table again.

My question is: What brought English verbs to behave this way? Why also Norwegian and Swedish have the same characteristics but not German, although they are all related languages? I suppose there must be a point where they split directions.

Side question: You can add this in the end, just for completeness. I'm asking out of curiosity: Apart from Chinese and Japanese that I'm aware of (plus Swedish and Norwegian I mentioned above), are there examples of other languages with similar characteristics, regardless of being unrelated?

N.B. Japanese verbs change a bit yes, but not according to the person.


Posted 2011-09-21T14:08:29.027

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I'm surprised that no one mentions functional load. Pro-subject-drop languages would be more likely to keep their inflections for person. Of course there's the question of the chicken and the egg.dainichi 2014-04-30T10:59:49.610

I have a useful (if simplified) graphic of the grammaticalization cycle on p.5 of http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/LanguageFossils.pdf

jlawler 2011-11-16T00:36:05.860

3Don't forget Danish. Danish verbs also do not conjugate according to person/number.dainichi 2012-05-14T06:46:34.017

@dainichi That's like Swedish more or less. :DAlenanno 2012-05-14T09:46:22.720

@Alenanno They are similar, that's true. Danish lost the plural inflection in present indicative and imperative around 100 years ago (in writing). In speech, the change happened earlier. Not sure about the other Nordic languages.dainichi 2012-05-15T00:14:50.370

Shouldn't we re-word the title to something like "Why do English verbs inflect so little for person?" The current question title is just wrong since English verbs do conjugate and can have up to eight forms: be, am, are, is, was, were, been, being (more if you include archaic but not obsolete forms).hippietrail 2012-07-29T08:44:41.103

@hippietrail Maybe it's too vague, but your example seems similar to mine. If you're worried about the title not taking into account the verb to be, I can think of a better wording. For example: "Why do English verbs usually/generally/mostly inflect so little?"... I'll think about it.Alenanno 2012-07-29T08:48:29.600

Well English verbs inflect for tense and person but the question body only talks about the category of person, and only regarding the present tense. to be has a couple more forms than normal words but if you include the past and present participles as many conjugation tables would, most verbs have either four or five forms (or "conjugations") but the question makes it seem they only have two. I also considered adding a tag for [tag:grammatical-person] but wasn't sure if the best way to improve the question is to broaden it to all forms or focus on the narrow present/person wording.hippietrail 2012-07-29T08:56:50.027

@hippietrail Expanding the question now is almost impossible: it has already been answered. I kept the simple present to make it simpler.Alenanno 2012-07-29T09:03:54.127

Yes because the answers are already in. So let me take a shot at making the question title and body reflect this a bit better...hippietrail 2012-07-29T09:08:02.167

Just to be thorough, Italian, Spanish and French are not technically related to English. English borrowed a lot of words from Latin and French (not to mention the myriad of other languages that English has borrowed from) during various phases, but it remains a (West) Germanic Language.Mark Tuttle 2011-09-21T14:32:38.217

5@Mark, Italian, Spanish, and French are Indo-European languages, and so are related to English at that level.JSBձոգչ 2011-09-21T14:35:16.953

2The table of comparison might work better if it included the Swedish and/or Norwegian discussed.hippietrail 2011-09-21T17:35:31.020



There are two things which conspired to eliminate most of the English verbal morphology:

Sound changes, especially the reduction and loss of unstressed final syllables, meant that verb forms that had been distinct in Anglo-Saxon became identical by Middle English, and lose their final bits of distinctiveness by Early Modern English. This accounts for the 1sg and all of the plural forms becoming identical in the present tense.

Social changes caused the old 2sg with thou, which had a distinct verbal ending in -st, to fall out in favor of you. This has been discussed in detail on English.SE.

The collusion of these two forces means that only the lonely 3sg form remains distinct in English.

Note that this isn't really unique to English, either. French has suffered a similar loss of unstressed final syllables, which means that in speech the French verb has lost most of its distinct forms. French spelling obscures this fact, though, as do conservative French grammar materials.


Posted 2011-09-21T14:08:29.027

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2Thanks for pointing out the similar effect in French: really only -ons and -ez remain.Jon Purdy 2011-09-25T01:09:38.153

off-topic: @JSBᾶngs wow that's really an enormous number of upvotes in English.SELouis Rhys 2011-09-27T04:44:01.127

+1 for the point about spoken French. French is such a great example because the spelling is frozen but the pronunciation has evolved, showing clearly how the loss of endings has made many of the conjugations homophonous.Mark Beadles 2012-01-28T17:44:44.433

There was also the -eth variant of the 3rd-person singular, which fell out of use. That's not a sound change, since English retains lots of other words ending in -Vth.Mechanical snail 2012-05-18T03:43:52.463

Paradigm levelling is one name for it.ROBOKiTTY 2012-09-16T02:25:24.240

Does that linguistic change have a name?Alenanno 2011-09-21T15:10:30.687

I mean the one you talk about in "sound changes".Alenanno 2011-09-21T15:24:38.717

@Alenanno: it's a combination of different things. Reduction, lenition, analogy, and probably others that don't immediately come to mind.JSBձոգչ 2011-09-21T15:53:13.613

Thank you. (I'm writing this part here because it complains about the 15 characters length.)Alenanno 2011-09-21T15:58:57.100


A common cause of loss of inflection in a language community is a large influx of speakers of another language (either a close but incomprehensible dialect or one just really far away) in Extreme cases it can be similar to (or is called) pidginization, which when a coherent creole comes out has usually lost most of the inflections existing in the parent language (I don't think this is the only way to lose inflections, just one way).

For English, it is said that the invasion of the Danes (Old Norse speakers) in the north-east, and then later the Norman invasion (Old French speakers) (all languages involved were inflected) killed off most inflections in English.


Posted 2011-09-21T14:08:29.027

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An extreme version of this idea is the Middle English creole hypothesis.

Mechanical snail 2012-05-18T03:41:41.313


Your question might be based on some false assumptions or gaps in your linguistics knowledge.

Firstly you need to know about linguistic typology, specifically morphological typology.

Conjugation is a type of verb morphology in inflected languages.

Languages are sometimes said to move from one morphological typology to the next in a cyclical pattern.

English has moved further down the path away from inflection than some of its siblings, but others of its siblings are doing the same.

These typologies are not as neat as they are sometimes made out to be which is why English and Japanese both don't fit neatly, but in different ways.

In inflected and agglutinating languages, the endings can cover a concept of agreement and there are different things with which to agree. Number is one, person is another. These do not all have to be present in a given language just because it has a certain morphological typology.

As for why English is losing some of its inflection, besides this being a trend for inflected languages generally, it has been suggested that one reason was that the Frisian and Norse languages which have both played a part in English's history had a lot in common but used similar inflections in different ways thus weakening them through ambiguity, making them susceptible to being lost.

As for the side question, the languages you invited comparison with, Chinese is an isolating or analytic language with no inflections and arguably no affixation. Japanese is of mixed type where its verbal system in agglutinating which means words take multiple endings attached to each other each with a meaning rather than inflectional where one ending encapsulates several meanings. Japanese is analytic in its noun system though since it uses separate particles/postpositions rather than endings.


Posted 2011-09-21T14:08:29.027

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1What false assumptions? I didn't compare anything to Chinese, nor Japanese. Those were in my side question, where I was asking if other languages didn't inflect verbs according to person. The only languages I really considered were the ones beloning to the Germanic family and also the European ones that were the most close to English.Alenanno 2011-09-21T15:06:53.907


It's what we are used to, but it's not a priori 'normal' that verbs inflect for person and number - or indeed for anything. Proto-Indoeuropean did inflect for person and number and that takes a long time to disappear, so that's what most languages familiar to us still do. For various reasons, English is particularly progressive in many respects and has lost the inflections. But sooner or later it will acquire other verb inflections. The example of French shows how that works, because there it's happening right now. So let's look at the history of French. Some of the details may not be completely right as I didn't look up anything up. It's only the general idea that matters.

Classical Latin: canto.

The verb has the first person singular ending. If you absolutely want to stress it's the first person singular, you can use a personal pronoun. In the course of the centuries, with increasing frequency people did that even when there wasn't a strong reason to stress anything. Ultimately it became normal to say:

Later Latin: ego canto. This is redundant. We have a pronoun and a suffix, which both give the same information about person and number.

As everyone already knew the person and number before the verb suffix was even pronounced, people pronounced it more and more sloppily. At the same time, the personal pronoun ego, being used so much, gradually acquired a simpler pronundation je.

French: je chante.

There is little person/gender information in the verb suffix, and it's not needed because this information is already in the personal pronoun. The personal pronoun definitely doesn't automatically feel. like it carries stress any more. And definitely can't leave it out any more.

As a result, a new personal pronoun emerges that can be added to indicate stress:

French: moi, je chante.

In some cases (not this one - yet), the normal person pronoun is contracted with the berb.

At this point in the development of French, ignoring the spelling and history but only focusing on oral French as it is used today, we could say that French verbs are inflexted on both sides and that the empathic pronouns moi, toi etc. are the real pronouns of French. The suffixes will disappear more and more, until French verbs are marked for person and number by a prefix rather than a suffix. For example like this. (The example is not phonetically plausible.)

Implausible but illustrative future French: Moi jchante, toi tchante, il/elle lchante, nous nchante, vous vchante, eux lchante.

Why is English almost finished with suffix shedding? Why does it look as if German has hardly started?

English branched off the German-Danish dialect continuum when people from around the German-Danish border moved to Great Britain. The various constitutive languages were mixed in a natural process in which nobody tried to make the result behave like Latin. Some who were originally speakers of Celtic languages or of French were also involved. The result was a rapid simplification.

The other Germanic languages have been a bit slower with some changes, and German much slower. For a long time it was just a dialect continuum, not a standard language with dialects. The endings got simpler in each dialect, but I guess in different dialects this happened differently. When scholars wanted to create a written language standard (17th-18th century), they were not interested in simplifying the inflections, but in making them as similar to Latin as was possible by picking suitable endings from the various dialects. The result was a standard language more conservative than all the dialects.

If you compare the recent history of German and Dutch, you can get the impression that German is changing much slower because standard Dutch updates when the dialects change, whereas German doesn't. It seems that for most Dutch speakers, standard Dutch is an averaged dialect, whereas for most Germans, standard German is an almost unchanging standard which dialect speakers learn like a foreign language. That's why the endings haven't started to disappear in German yet.

Hans Adler

Posted 2011-09-21T14:08:29.027

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