Irregular verbs in German, English and Swedish  
: vowel-consonant and consonant-vowel sequences, and the spling experiment

  • Benjamin Peter Catchpole

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The research embodied in this thesis is based on Saussurean structuralism, Beedham's 'method of exceptions and their correlations', corpus linguistics, Bybee & Moder's spling experiments and work on irregular verbs by Pinker, Tobin and Even-Simkin. We looked for rules and meaning in the irregular verbs of German, English and Swedish, employing Beedham's vowel-consonant (VC) and consonant-vowel (CV) analysis of irregular verbs in German, English and Russian, in which he claims that the VCs and CVs of irregular verbs, e.g. the -eib and the blei- of German bleiben, are markers of irregular conjugation, and that the German irregular verbs share the VCs of separable prefixes, indicating that irregular verbs are perfective.

We carried out a VC/CV experiment on Swedish, adding several refinements to Beedham's experiments, especially using a numerical threshold to arrive at a numerical measure of how many irregular verb VCs/CVs are markers of irregular conjugation. We found that 78% of Swedish irregular verbs have a VC and 87% have a CV which is a marker of irregular conjugation. We also discovered that an individual vowel and an individual consonant can be a marker of irregular conjugation.

We carried out spling experiments on German, English and Swedish, which we administered in Bonn, St Andrews and Stockholm. We presented participants with a set of invented verbs, e.g. English spling, and asked them to write down the preterit (past tense) of each verb. Going by current wisdom they should conjugate the verbs regularly, e.g. spling splinged. But unbeknown to the participants we had laced the verbs with a good dose of irregular verb VCs and CVs, and many participants conjugated many verbs irregularly, e.g. spling splang. These results corroborate the view that the VCs and CVs of the irregular verbs of German, English and Swedish are markers of irregular conjugation and meaning-bearing.
Date of Award17 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorChristopher Beedham (Supervisor) & Ted Lars Lennart Bergman (Supervisor)

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 14 February 2032

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