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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptNIH Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Nature. Author manuscript; available in PMC Jul 14, 2008.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2460562
NIHMSID: NIHMS49935

Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language

Abstract

Human language is based on grammatical rules–. Cultural evolution allows these rules to change over time. Rules compete with each other: as new rules rise to prominence, old ones die away. To quantify the dynamics of language evolution, we studied the regularization of English verbs over the last 1200 years. Although an elaborate system of productive conjugations existed in English’s proto-Germanic ancestor, modern English uses the dental suffix, -ed, to signify past tense. Here, we describe the emergence of this linguistic rule amidst the evolutionary decay of its exceptions, known to us as irregular verbs. We have generated a dataset of verbs whose conjugations have been evolving for over a millennium, tracking inflectional changes to 177 Old English irregulars. Of these irregulars, 145 remained irregular in Middle English and 98 are still irregular today. We study how the rate of regularization depends on the frequency of word usage. The half-life of an irregular verb scales as the square root of its usage frequency: a verb that is 100 times less frequent regularizes 10 times as fast. Our study provides a quantitative analysis of the regularization process by which ancestral forms gradually yield to an emerging linguistic rule.

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