The Olympics Go Introspecting!

I was reading an article this morning about the Singaporean table tennis player Feng Tianwei, who won Singapore’s first individual Olympic medal winner since Tan Howe Liang in 1960. (Go Singapore!) The part of the article that caught my eye was this:

It is not inadequate for the national paddlers to speak Mandarin, even in media interviews. The Speak Mandarin Campaign has been running for years, so why force people to switch to broken English?

Singaporeans should introspect about our spoken English: How many of us speak proper English in our daily conversations?

While the framing of “broken” and “proper” English is worth thinking about, what I want to address in this post is the use of introspect as a verb. One of the things that strikes me as interesting is that although it has a verb form, its derived noun (introspection) and adjective (introspective) forms are far more common. So for my Coffee Break Experiment (all apologies to Language Log and their Breakfast Experiments) this morning I wanted to see how often introspect is used as a verb and in what contexts.

For some background, a quick look at the OED provides these first examples of introspect and introspection in English:

1683   E. Hooker in J. Pordage Theologia Mystica Pref. Epist. 66   There to view, introspect and comprehend, as wel as apprehend, the Wonders of Jehovah Ælohim.

a1676   M. Hale Primitive Originat. Mankind (1677) i. ii. 55   The actings of the Mind or Imagination it self, by way of reflection or introspection of themselves.

Both the verb and noun forms enter the language about the same time, though the noun form is a little earlier; however, it doesn’t seem like introspect is a back-formation.

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows 8 examples of introspect as a verb, 4 of those in academic writing. The one that seems seems quite similar to our example comes from fiction:

Then if you do not introspect regarding your own inner doings, why would you expect it of me?

Interestingly, as a verb introspect exclusively appears in the infinitive form. It appears with a modal verb (like our example “should introspect”) or with the infinitive particle to (“to introspect”).

In the British National Corpus, we find 7 examples. There, however, we get the form introspects:

and therefore that someone who can not, however hard he introspects, discover some thing which is what the word means

The instances in the Corpus of Historical American English are, like COCA, all in the infinitive. Here is the chart showing uses over time:

 Also in COHA, we find this:

Instead of serving as silent recorders, the Bruner team asked subjects to “introspect” about what they were doing as they sorted objects according to different properties?

That example from the magazine New Republic shows introspect collocating with the preposition about, just as it does in our example.

It seems, then, that although the use in our example is an unusual one, it isn’t entirely unknown. That speakers and writers would use this form from time to time isn’t surprising, as getting introspect from introspection follows some basic rules of word formation: verb + (at)ion = noun. Or in reverse: noun – (at)ion = verb.