What does “sparkle” have in common with “jiggle”?

7 03 2011

English has a sophisticated verb system, or more correctly, a collection of sub-systems, that allow for very precise reference to time. In fact, I tend towards the view that the soul of English is encased in its verb.

One of my favourite tenses is the future-in-the-past eg I thought it was going to be a great evening out. This means: in the past I had this thought about an activity yet to be experienced and now, looking back, after the event, I can recognize my prediction was completely wrong (or totally correct, as the case may be).

I’m very fond of this tense structure and as I get older, I find I have more and more use for it – perhaps because it allows for a certain bittersweet reminiscence and regret to which I find myself rather prone. Until such time as I can express this function in a language other than English, I feel I’ll never be able to take much pride in my other languages. It can be done in Spanish; it’s just that, limited as my Spanish is, I can’t do it.

But that’s by the way. What I was hoping to get onto, by introducing verbs,  was a mention of a verb form called the frequentative. This is a special independent verb ( let’s call it #2), derived from another verb (let’s call this one #1) where Verb #2 has the very particular meaning of denoting a repeated occurrence of Verb #1’s meaning.

Obtuse? Let’s look at it through some examples. Take the word “flutter”. Historically, this is a frequentative of the verb “float”,  its meaning related to the rapid, flapping movement of wings.

We have a few others in English. Some employ the suffix –le – : – like “sparkle” (from “spark”); “crumble” (from “crumb”); “nestle” (from “nest”); “jiggle” (from “jig”); “gobble” (from “gob”); “wrestle” (from “wrest”). Others, like “flutter”, use the –er suffix eg “batter” (from “bat”); “patter” (from “pat”).

In English the list of frequentative verbs is short and closed. Some other languages, notably Lithuania and Finnish, are much stronger on frequentatives. In Finnish, for example, you can include a special device, which is very nice,  that denotes that the repeated occurrence is sudden  and short-lived. There’s another device (called an “anti-causative”) denoting that the action is not deliberate but accidental or independent. As I look at this from the outside, it seems the possibilities for nuanced expression are endless.

Most Finns no doubt take all this in their stride, with only a handful of linguists regularly celebrating their language’s dexterity. The fact is that many of the original verbs (Verb #1) have disappeared over time (as too, they have in English: eg we have “scuttle” but no longer much use for “scud”) , leaving only the derived form (Verb #2), making it even less likely that your ordinary speaker of Finnish knows that their frequentatives have a rich history.

Sadly, your ordinary Finn may only ever discover his/her language’s special capacity when, in learning English, they struggle to express in English that which comes naturally to them in Finnish. Or maybe the dexterity of their first language actually privileges them as second language learners. I have no idea, but it is a subject of conversation I might raise when next I run into a Finn.