Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do We Need Conjugations?

It may sound fairly ridiculous, but do languages actually need conjugations?

Look at it this way: conjugations change the meaning of verbs. They tell us about who or what is carrying out the action and when it happened. If you're familiar with the six pronouns (three for singular, three for plural, each with first, second and third person forms), then you probably know they are the following in English:
  1. I
  2. You
  3. He/She/It
  4. We
  5. You (plural, often pluralised in interesting ways to avoid confusion, e.g. yous, y'all, you guys, etc.)
  6. They
For each of those you need a different form of a verb, known as a conjugation. In English, however, there are only usually two or three options. Many languages feature unique conjugations for each one!

Take the verb to run:

I run, you run, he/she/it runs, we run, you run, they run.

Regular verbs start with a stem. These are stem cells.

We have the forms run and runs and a lot of verbs follow this pattern in English. Simply add an s to the stem, the stem being run. We know who is doing the running thanks to the pronoun and the conjugation. Could we use one or the other? In Spanish, each of the six conjugations are distinct, so the pronoun becomes irrelevant. You will often find Spanish speakers dropping the pronoun and using the verb independently of its verb. This couldn't be done in English since for most verbs five of the conjugations are identical.

We're not saying Spaniards are lazy... but they don't bother with
personal pronouns and this one doesn't even run around the pitch.
Could we remove the conjugations since most of the understood meaning is from the pronouns? Probably.

I be, you be, he/she/it be, we be, you be, they be? Sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? Though it wouldn't if everyone spoke like that. We could do one or another. Create six distinct conjugations for each verb in each tense, or have auxiliary verbs to indicate tense and use pronouns to clarify.

Auxiliary verbs are added to the main verb to change its meaning. Take the future tense in English with the verb to run: "I will run". We know this is an event in the future thanks to use of "will"... the word, not meaning the "faculty to initiate action".

I will exercise... tomorrow.

We reckon that a perfect language (no languages are perfect, by the way, not even constructed languages) would feature one system or the other... conjugations without pronouns, or a pronoun and auxiliary verb system. It would definitely be easier for everyone, especially foreign learners since you'd need around half the vocabulary to indicate tenses and explain situations. Don't you think?