There are ten parts of speech and they are all troublesome. — Mark Twain
I am a stickler for a consistency, notoriously never permitting my team to submit a legal brief without making sure that every use of ellipses is proper: “word … word” — not “word… word” or “word . . . word.”
So it seemed natural this week to find myself in a heated argument about the proper plural of “oaf.” In my mind, because the plural of “loaf” is “loaves,” consistency requires that the plural of “oaf” be “oaves.”
To my chagrin, I discovered that the plural of “oaf” is “oafs” … just like the plural of “chief” is “chiefs,” the plural of “belief” is “beliefs,” and so on. In fact, a few more words are oafish, rather than loafish (or loavish?). What’s more, the plural of some words even changes depending on their meaning. The plural of “staff” is “staves” when you’re talking about multiple long sticks, but “staffs” when you’re talking about multiple sets of employees.
Perhaps most frustratingly, there seems to be no regularity behind this irregularity. No explanation, nothing to justify it. I also learned that it’s only one example of widespread inconsistency in the English language. While we normally think of the past tense as fairly predictable (just add “ed”), think about the past-tense irregularities in the verb “(w)ring.” The road ringed the city. I rang the bell. I wrung the wet cloth. Woof.
Psycholinguists, who study how we acquire, use, and understand language, call this phenomenon—being mostly patterned but subject to various exceptions—“quasiregularity.” And it turns out to have been the subject of a fierce, decades-long debate about the very nature of language and the functioning of our brains.
Traditionally, language was understood as a distinct capability. Psycholinguists studied how we use language in order to draw conclusions about the way our brains form and learn it. The theory on quasiregularity was a fairly simple one: the existence of a main pattern with certain deviations means that there is one part of our brain that learns the systematic rules of language (i.e., grammar), and another part that memorizes the exceptions (which arose for various historical and functional reasons) in the form of specific words. This means that rule-governed forms of words (like past-tense verbs ending in “ed”) and irregular forms (like “rang” and “wrung”) are distinct types of knowledge governed by different principles in different parts of the brain.
This binary approach, however, has its flaws. Of “loaves” and “oafs,” which is regular, and which is the exception? Why are regular and irregular forms still similar? And why are irregularities themselves often similar, and sometimes predictable, based on the way a word sounds (phonology), the way it is written (orthography), and the way it is used (semantics)? Much like “staffs” and “staves,” in a study in which participants were asked to choose the best past tense for the made-up word “sprink,” whether they chose “sprinked” or “sprank” depended on whether they were asked to use the word in a story involving eyes (meant to evoke a comparison to “blink/blinked”) or in a story involving drinking (to evoke “drink/drank”).
All of this suggests that perhaps quasiregularity is in fact just the result of a much broader process by our brains to create words in a way that best takes into account their individual semantics, phonology, and orthography. In other words, our brains essentially compute what form a word should take based on its context and our experiences. Under this view (often referred to as “connectivism”), language isn’t unique, it’s just one result of the brain’s general processes of learning and processing information. And rather than studying how we use language to deduce how our brains learn it, we need to study how our brains work to understand the language they produce.
What I found fascinating about this debate is that, even in studying irregularity, both sides are still seeking consistency. This is easy to see in the binary approach, where every word is either one thing or another, regular or an exception. But it’s equally part of the connectivst approach, where every word is the product of a nuanced, rational calculation, based on knowable inputs and outputs. At the end of the day, neither side wants there to be true irregularity at all. Both seek an ordered system, where even an exception has its proper and logical place.
We all crave order and consistency in our lives. We want things to be predictable, to fall into a pattern that we can understand—and perhaps more importantly, control. Where there is order, we can be safe: we can take certain discernible steps that result in the protection and promotion of our interests. And where there is order, we belong: we see our proper place in relation to others. Order allows us to look around and feel we deserve to be where we are.
We see this need for order from the grandest level to the smallest, daily actions:
Religion offers a comprehensive order that explains our existence and provides a set of rules to follow to ensure our eternal protection. Perhaps most importantly, it also allows us to justify our current lot in life—no matter what that is. Religious hierarchical frameworks are perennial. Plato divided all beings into groups, ranked based on the “degree of perfection of their souls.” The Catholic Church perfected his idea into the Great Chain of Being, a staircase of matter from dirt to God.
Hindu texts from 1000 B.C. separated us into four varnas, which eventually developed into a rigid caste system. These frameworks allow those who are at the top to believe it is because they have played by the rules, they are righteous. Yet they equally allow those who are at the bottom to accept their current status, while also believing that if they follow the rules they too can climb upward, even if only in the afterlife, or in another iteration of life. In this way, both the bejeweled monarch and the pious peasant, both the priestly Brahmin and the laboring Shudra, belong.
Such strict religious divisions may not wield as much power in our modern world, but think about the way you react when you make an “A” in school. You deserved it—you worked hard, you learned the material, you performed well. In contrast, a classmate who made a “C” didn’t play by the rules. Here is a rational explanation justifying your success and another’s failure. But what if the reason that you worked hard, learned the material, and performed well is that your parents are both professors, meaning you are both genetically and environmentally predisposed to academic success? Here is another rational explanation for your superior performance and your classmate’s mediocre one. Both theories provide consistency and positional certainty.
Of course, science has helped us gain a better understanding of which, if any, of our theories, are physically accurate. Neuroscience may one day allow us to determine with certainty whether “oafs” is an exception, or the rational output of a complex mental calculation, or neither. Genetics may one day allow us to know our precise propensity for academic/intellectual achievement. But even if science can describe how things became the way they are, it may never explain why they—and we—are that way. For that, for now, we must continue to create our own theories.
Perhaps there is, in fact, a single, overarching order that explains our existence and place in the universe; perhaps we only invent theories of order to feel that we belong; perhaps both are simultaneously true.
This observation might leave you feeling uncertain and powerless, stuck in perpetual ignorance. But try letting out a laugh instead. Isn’t it almost a relief to see and accept our own limitations and fallibilities? It means we don’t have to know how to be perfect. We are free to create theories of “why” that provide comfort and happiness in our lives, but we don’t have to be right. We become the makers of our own meaning.
But it also means that we must stop taking our own theories so seriously, measuring our own and others’ worth solely based on what we have chosen to believe. I personally find great relief in the practice of meditation, finding that if I let go of my reactions of aversion and grasping I am calmer, happier, better. But why should I judge another for finding his own peace in the teachings of Mohamed, or for believing that there is nothing beyond this life? One day, we may all be proven objectively to be entirely wrong, but that does not take away what we each gain from our faith in this moment.
Of course, we may choose together as families, communities, nations, or even a global society, to elevate some theories over others. We may choose not to honor beliefs that lead to the harm or debasement of other beings, or our environment; we may reward certain behaviors and punish others in an attempt to achieve greater harmony. As we make these choices, we codify them in laws, in our own rules that we as a collective have decided to follow. But we should recognize that any choice, any law, is an agreement among people: one that could have been different, one that might change as we continue to learn physical truths about the world around us, and one based—just like our individual beliefs—on a fundamental need for order and meaning.
So let’s continue trying to understand what makes us say “loaves” and “oafs,” continue creating our own theories to explain why, and continue making collective agreements to order ourselves in a world we may never truly be able to understand or control. In doing so, let’s remain open to changing our minds. In doing so, let’s embrace the fact that we are hopelessly, irregularly human.
Mark Seidenberg and David Plaut, “Quasiregularity and its discontents: the legacy of the past tense debate” in Cognitive Science, 38, 1190-1228 (2014), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25104139
Mark Liberman, “The theology of phonology” on Language Log (Jan. 4, 2004), http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000288.html
Mark Liberman, “The curious case of quasiregularity” on Language Log (Jan. 15, 2004), http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000344.html
Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, p. 289 (2004) (Great Chain of Being)
Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018), available at Amazon