Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.
We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs, -zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)
Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the -é and -ó endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).
Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:
As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –uī class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the –sī class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.
Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (miento, mientes, etc.), and dormir (duermo, duermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.
That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…