H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
The three great causes of change in language, says Sayce, may be briefly described as (1) imitation or analogy, (2) a wish to be clear and emphatic, and (3) laziness. Indeed, if we choose to go deep enough we might reduce all three causes to the general one of laziness, since it is easier to imitate than to say something new.51 This tendency to take well-worn paths, paradoxically enough, is responsible both for the transfer of verbs from the strong to the weak declension, and for the transfer of certain others from the weak to the strong. A verb in everyday use tends almost inevitably to pull less familiar verbs with it, whether it be strong or weak. Thus fed as the preterite of to feed and led as the preterite of to lead paved the way for pled as the preterite of to plead, and rode as plainly performed the same office for glode, and rung for brung, and drove for dove and hove, and stole for dole, and won for skun. Moreover, a familiar verb, itself acquiring a faulty inflection, may fasten a similar inflection upon another verb of like sound. Thus het, as the preterite of to heat, no doubt owes its existence to the example of et, the vulgar preterite of to eat.52 So far the irregular verbs. The same combination of laziness and imitativeness works toward the regularization of certain verbs that are historically irregular. In addition, of course, there is the fact that regularization is itself intrinsically simplificationthat it makes the language easier. One sees the antagonistic pull of the two influences in the case of verbs ending in -ow. The analogy of knew suggests snew as the preterite of to snow, and it is sometimes encountered in the American vulgate. But the analogy of snowed also suggests knowed, and the superior regularity of the form is enough to overcome the greater influence of knew as a more familiar word than snowed. Thus snew grows rare and is in decay, but knowed shows vigor, and so do growed and throwed. The substitution of heerd for heard also presents a case of logic and convenience supporting
Note 52. The use of eat as its own preterite was formerly sound in English and still survives more or less. I find it on p. 24 of On Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham; New York, 1915. A correspondent informs me that it occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, act iv, sc. i, in A Midsummer Nights Dream, act ii, sc. ii, in As You Like It, act i, sc. iii, in The Taming of the Shrew, act iv, sc. i, in Macbeth, act ii, sc. iv, and in King Lear, act i, sc. iv. How the preterite was pronounced in Shakespeares day I do not know. [back]