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So I have been studying Spanish recently (mainly verb conjugations because I'm great at constructing sentences, but still am horrible when it comes to verb conjugations), and decided to teach myself the verb conjugation for ser (to be, used to identify something in a permanent state) in the preterite form.

However, I thought that I was getting a feeling of déjà vu because it looked sort of similar to the verb conjugation for ir (to go) in the preterite form. I looked back at my notes to refresh myself on the conjugation of ir in the preterite form to make sure that it was just a fake feeling of déjà vu, however, it turned out that the verb conjugations were in fact the same in the preterite form.

For anyone who wants to know, these are the verb conjugations for ser and ir in the preterite form:

Yo          fui
Tú          fuiste
Él/Ella/Ud. fue
Nosotros    fuimos
Vosotros    fuisteis
Ell@s/Uds.  fueron

Proof:


  1. Conjugation of ser
  2. Conjugation of ir

This made me think: Is it usually okay for conlangs to have verbs that have the same verb conjugations, leading to the listener having to interpret what is being said entirely based on context, or should this happen more as the language evolves?


Japanese and Chinese


I bring up Japanese and Chinese because I feel like they would make good examples of where pretty much anything that is said in those two languages is interpreted based on how the listener chooses to interpret what is being said, although being natural languages and not conlangs.

Example for Mandarin Chinese (Simplified) Example for Japanese
"我吃了一个苹果" (Wǒ chīle yīgè píngguǒ "I ate an apple") could be interpreted by the listener as "我吃了依各凭果" (Wǒ chīle yī gè píng guǒ "I ate yogurt", although could be interpreted as "I ate the fruit of Ezekiel", a more oldspeak way of saying it, per se) This one is more obvious, albeit it being different from the previous example because this example is more just similar sounding words, like "参加" (sanka "participation") could be interpreted as "酸化" (sanka "oxidation"). Some other examples of this are "漢字" (kanji "Chinese characters") and "感じ" (kanji "feeling"), "死亡" (shibou "death"), "脂肪" (shibou "grease") and "志望" (shibou "ambition")

On the topic of Old Spanish


Old Spanish
I wasn't really able to find anything that really related to similar sounding words/verbs on the Wikipedia for Old Spanish, since the only thing that I could find to relate to this was osso "bear" v.s oso "I dare", which while looking different despite being pronounced the same, apparently are written the same in Modern Spanish today (oso "bear" and oso "I dare") so I feel like this would at least be a somewhat good example at least.

According to the Old Spanish Wikipedia


The Old Spanish spelling of the sibilants was identical to modern Portuguese spelling, which, unlike [modern] Spanish, still preserves most of the sounds of the medieval language, and so is still a mostly faithful representation of the spoken language. Examples of words before spelling was altered in 1815 to reflect the changed pronunciation:

...

osso 'bear' versus oso 'I dare' (Modern Spanish oso in both cases, cf. Portuguese urso [a borrowing from Latin], ouso)

For anyone who is wondering, "cf." means "confer".


My question


Is it likely that new conlangs will have verbs that will be conjugated the exact same as another verb, or should this happen more as the language evolves?


Links that I used when researching this


  1. Old Spanish Wikipedia
  2. Similar sounding words in Japanese source
  3. Google Translate (I usually use Google Translate to get rōmaji "ローマ字" (Literal translation to English: Roman characters) and pīnyīn "拼音" (Literal translation to English: Pinyin) if I can't remember it off of the top of my head.)
  4. DeepL Translate (This is more for getting an extremely accurate translation if I want to provide an example to what I am talking about, however I usually always then go to Google Translate to get the pronunciation if I can't exactly remember it)

To clear up any confusion


  1. I am sorry if I lost you really anywhere in my thought process, I'm good at writing short questions but I feel like whenever I try to write a long essay explaining my question, it always has seemed like I tend to more or less accidentally go off track on what my question is supposed to be about.
  2. This is more of an addendum to point #1, but I also feel like sometimes I also don't seem to add a whole lot of evidence to long essays that I write, so sorry if it feels like that.
  3. I am also sorry if any of my are not related to my post.

1 Answer 1

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This is known as suppletion: when a particular verb, for whatever reason, is missing some of its forms, and they have to be filled in by another verb. This is why "go" and "went" look so different in English: "go" is missing its past tense, so we've filled it in with the past tense from the unrelated verb "wend" (as in "wend your way"). For a more modern example, "can" has no future tense, so we have to fill in the gap with "be able to" ("she could do it", "she can do it", "she will be able to do it").

In Latin, as in English, the verb "to be" ended up becoming an amalgamation of a bunch of different stems via this process. Some forms are cognate with "is", from a PIE root meaning "be" (sum, est, esse, etc), and others are cognate with "be", from a PIE root meaning "become" (fuī, futūrus, etc). This process only got worse in Spanish: regular sound changes made some of these forms indistinguishable, so forms from another verb (sedēre, "reside") were co-opted to fill in the gaps. This is where forms like ser come from.

Meanwhile, the verb "to go" in Latin was fairly regular, but had a very short stem: a single i-. This meant that a lot of its forms became indistinguishable when sound changes merged this stem into the endings. As a result, Spanish once again co-opted forms from other verbs to fill in its gaps: some forms come from vadere "to walk" (like voy), while others were taken from the already-suppletive verb for "to be".

So, how common is this? Suppletion is very common! But if it creates too much ambiguity, more suppletion will happen to reduce that ambiguity: in Latin, the past tense of tollere "lift" were used to fill in gaps in the paradigm of ferre "carry", so tollere started using the past tense of the prefixed form sustollere instead.

Evidently in this case, the ambiguity didn't create too much of a problem, so it survived unchanged (like "can" and "be able to" in English). But it's easy to imagine Alternate Spanish where things turned out mostly the same, but ir borrowed a different verb's past tense to reduce this ambiguity (like how the past tense of "wend" is now "wended" instead of "went").

It's also possible for verbs to end up with the same conjugation, not because of suppletion, but because sound changes made them into homophones. Similarly, when this happens, either the ambiguity will be acceptable, or it won't be (and one of the verbs will fall out of use as a result).

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  • Thanks for the answer! I would never have thought that suppletion/ambiguity could be a result of that happening if it weren't for this!
    – CrSb0001
    May 18, 2023 at 16:58
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    NOTE: many varieties of English allow the double modal construction, the sort of thing that educated prescriptivists laugh at, like "I might could do that" or "She'll can get that for you." I find they are extremely useful.
    – elemtilas
    May 31, 2023 at 4:24

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