Predicting the evolution of language

Very cool:

Verbs evolve and homogenize at a rate inversely proportional to their prevalence in the English language, according to a formula developed by Harvard University mathematicians who’ve invoked evolutionary principles to study our language over the past 1,200 years, from “Beowulf” to “Canterbury Tales” to “Harry Potter.”

Writing this week in the journal Nature, Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, and colleagues in Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, led by Martin A. Nowak, conceive of linguistic development as an essentially evolutionary scheme: Just as genes and organisms undergo natural selection, words — specifically, irregular verbs that do not take an “-ed” ending in the past tense — are subject to powerful pressure to “regularize” as the language develops.

“Mathematical analysis of this linguistic evolution reveals that irregular verb conjugations behave in an extremely regular way — one that can yield predictions and insights into the future stages of a verb’s evolutionary trajectory,” says Lieberman, a graduate student in applied mathematics in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and an affiliate of Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. “We measured something no one really thought could be measured, and got a striking and beautiful result.”

The article goes on to talk about how the researchers learned how to compute the “half-life” of an irregular verb and predict how long the verb will be in use before it becomes regularized.

There’s a little more here (scroll down), including a link where you can purchase the article.

Update: Here’s an NPR report on a related topic, including an audio link.


Filed under Math

4 responses to “Predicting the evolution of language

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I found this post interesting. Thank you.

  2. You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. So the verb just sits there vibrating for a while until it EMITS an ending and then it becomes a regular verb, but you don’t want to be around when that happens because the energy released vaporizes grammar books.

    Great find.

  4. rightwingprof

    Interesting, though I rather doubt the validity of the study, or the thoroughness of the researchers. Analogy — which is the process, and not “regularization” (a misnomer, since most non -ed verbs are not irregular, that’s why they’re known as strong verbs) — doesn’t operate consistently across verb forms, nor does it operate in a predictable direction. American English is more conservative wrt verbs than British. A single paradigm doesn’t account for the difference. Basic vocabulary changes less than extended because we use basic vocabulary more. A paradigm also does not account for this.

    Interesting, but ignorant and simplistic.