Monday, January 23, 2006

The case of the missing a

Boredoom’s fiance is learning Swedish and she had a question about Swedish verb morphology that he, as a native speaker, couldn’t answer, so he asked me if I knew anything about it. I know a bit about Swedish noun morphology, but I haven’t really thought about the verbs. But here is what I realized after looking through a few grammar books.

The question was about forming the imperative of a verb. There are some verbs where the imperative is the same as the infinitive:

InfinitiveImperativeEnglish Gloss

But there are also verbs where the imperative is infinitive minus the final a:

InfinitiveImperativeEnglish Gloss

So what the heck is going on here? How can you tell for any given verb what the imperative is if you know the infinitive?

Well the thing is is that Swedish is a little more complicated than most people, even native speakers, think. But it’s not crazy complicated. I think a standard generative grammar answer would go something like this—In Swedish the imperative is the bare root of the verb. The infinitive is formed by adding the suffix –a to the bare root. When a verb root already ends in a, you don’t get a double aa, you just don’t add the infinitive suffix. (There’s probably some real interesting theoretical issues about what that last statement actually means, but I’ll ignore that for now.)

There are a couple things an adult learner might be confused by. Like, “WTF, the infinitive has an affix?” Most dictionaries list the infinitive as the “basic form” of the verb. So a learner will probably assume ‘basic form’ means ‘not affixed’. Also, the learner probably learns the infinitive first, so to get the infinitive from the imperative seems a little bass-ackwards.

Also, Phillip Holmes and Ian Hinchliffe, in their excellent Swedish: A comprehensive grammar, note that about 80% of all Swedish verbs actually end in the vowel a, so their imperative form IS the same as the infinitive. Even worse, about half of the most common verbs are like this. These common verbs include the verbs for ‘show’, ‘ask’, ‘begin’, ‘speak’, ‘tell’. ‘play’, ‘build’, ‘create’, ‘correct’, ‘call’, ‘calculate’, ‘work’, ‘leave’, ‘wait’, ‘answer’, ‘increase’, ‘look at’, ‘explain’, and ‘open’—all of which make excellent imperatives. So assuming that the infinitive is the ‘unaffixed form’ is probably reinforced by sheer number and frequency of the verbs of like this the learner comes across.

The only way to get a really clear idea of the pattern is to look at a lot of different verbs and their forms in a couple of tenses and do some analysis. When you do that, you see that the mysterious a that disappears in the imperative will also disappear in the present and past tenses, if the verb takes a suffix in those tenses.

This type of analysis is what the generative linguist usually does. But the language learner rarely has the time or the ability to do that. And it’s not so clear that even knowing the grammatical rule would be helpful. When you've just robbed a bank, for example, and you're jumping into the getaway car and want to use the imperative for ‘drive’, you don’t want to be thinking, “Does this verb end in a?”


Eric said...

You sure that "the learner probably learns the infinitive first"? I would think that kids hear plenty of imperatives, at least for a substantial number of verbs. Then again, you're the one with kids so maybe I'm just talking out of my ass.

liberal elite said...

Oh no. You're right. Kids here a lot of imperatives. I was actaully thinking of adult learners. They probably hear fewer.

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