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Math Science

The Evolution of Language 528

Posted by samzenpus
from the everything-can-be-measured dept.
TaeKwonDood writes "We all know language has evolved but mathematicians are trying to take how it has changed in the past to predict what it will be like in the future." From the article: "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.""
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The Evolution of Language

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  • by SpaceLifeForm (228190) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @10:56PM (#20935619)
    It's fuck that, suck this, screw that.

    Verbs, verbs, verbs, that's all anyone thinks about.
  • Bawstan Habah? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by v_1_r_u_5 (462399)
    All I'd like to know is how in the hell did Boston become Bawstan and Chowder become Chowda? And what's with the cities around Massachusetts, anyway? Worcester is pronounced Wusta ... ?!?!? They haven't just evolved - they've completely morphed!
    • by cez (539085) *
      there's something in the water... at least they still spell it the same. I'm trying to prevent my goddaughter from becoming an unfortunate victim of trans morphed vernaculars.


      OT, this article is pretty cool, but doesn't take into account the evolution of symbolic representation in language, and the r00tshell.com effect. STFU n00b.


      HAND =)

    • Re:Bawstan Habah? (Score:5, Informative)

      by pyrrhonist (701154) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @01:02AM (#20936343)

      All I'd like to know is how in the hell did Boston become Bawstan and Chowder become Chowda?

      As a Massachusetts resident, I have no idear what happens to the ahs.

      What really cracked me up is the day they decided to rename, "Great Woods Performing Arts Center", to the, "Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts". It's like they tried to purposely add more ahs!

      "Hey Boston Guy, where's the concert?"
      "It's at the Tweetah Centah for the Performin' Ahts!"

      Worcester is pronounced Wusta ... ?!?!?

      It depends on the speaker. Sometimes its more like Wista. Either way it's usually followed most times by, "Spag's", as in, "If we're going to bother to go to that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Wista, we might as well stop at Spag's".

      They haven't just evolved - they've completely morphed!

      To the point where sometimes people don't understand the normal pronunciation!

      True story:

      One day I went to a, "Boston Market", with my coworker for lunch. On this particular day, we were unfortunate enough to be waited upon by a guy with a Southy accent so thick you'd swear he was an extra from, "Good Will Hunting".

      In case you're lucky enough to be from another country and have never encountered one of these abominations of cuisine, some explanation is in order. Boston Market is a fast food restaurant that sells mainly rotisserie-cooked poultry dishes with your choice of side. At Boston Market you can get a chicken dish that consists of a leg and thigh, which is called a, "Quarter Dark". This is the item that I was prepared to order.

      I am not originally from Massashusetts, and so my pronunciation of these two words are almost identical to anyone in the civilized world (not entirely, or that would be, "civilised world"). I approached the register and ordered:

      Me: "I would like a quarter dark, please."
      Him: "Excuse me?"
      Me (loudly): "A quarter dark, please."
      Him: "What?"
      Me: "QWAHTAH DAHK!!!"
      Him: "Oh, a qwahtah dahk..."

      At least, "job", isn't pronounced like, "jaerb".

      Yet.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Wanna see morphing? Come to Australia. Even we have trouble keeping track of the changes.
  • Hari Seldon... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by beav007 (746004) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:01PM (#20935653) Journal
    ...is that you?
  • by exploder (196936) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:02PM (#20935657) Homepage
    am glad I getted the chance to welcome our new, regularly-conjugated overlords.
  • by dbIII (701233) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:02PM (#20935661)
    I predict we will "loose" a lot of words and have them replaced by ones with similar spelling.
    • "we will "loose" a lot of words"

      Why would the words fall apart? I guess you already lost "lose"... ;)
  • by Wizarth (785742) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:03PM (#20935667) Homepage
    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

    Generally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeiniing voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivili.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev alojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Actually, written English hasn't changed much since the Middle Ages. It's the pronunciation the one that's changed a lot, and that's why us non-native English speakers are sometimes baffled by the incoherence of the English spelling.
      • by langelgjm (860756) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:40PM (#20935923) Journal
        I'm not sure what you mean when you say "Middle Ages", but written English certainly did change quite a bit from the 8th century to the 16th century, and most people place the Middle Ages somewhere in there, if not starting before that. Here are some examples of the change:

        8th century - Beowulf, which is unreadable for modern English speakers.
        1066 - Norman conquest - Old French would have a massive influence on English. Introduction of lots of Latin roots into English.
        14th century - Chaucer, somewhat readable for modern English speakers with modernized spellings.
        16th century - Shakespeare, more or less readable for modern English speakers without much editing.


        Pronunciation of course also changed drastically, and this was reflected in orthography as well.
        • by c_forq (924234)
          Readable if the letters are reformatted I will give you, but have you ever tried reading material from the American Revolution that was written in cursive? Even in print the whole "s" looking a lot like an "f" thing at the beginning and middle of words gets real annoying, along with the goofy connector of "c" and "t" when they appear next to each other.
        • by Max Littlemore (1001285) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @02:35AM (#20936789)

          16th century - Shakespeare, more or less readable for modern English speakers without much editing.

          The printing press was a major incentive to standardise spelling, but also let to one of the few problems translating/transcribing Shakespeare.

          Early fonts put a curl to the left on the bottom of the lower case "f" making it look a bit like a letter "s". Because s is much more common than "f", early printers would run out of esses before effs and would substitute an eff for an ess when neceffary.

          My dad has a reproduction of early prints of Shakspeare's plays and the Midsummer Nights Dream song "Where the bees suck, there suck I" is on one such page. This caused a bit of a stir backstage and had to be explained, apparently.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Fruit (31966)
            Eh, isn't that simply the long s [wikipedia.org] you're referring to? That has nothing to do with "running out of esses".
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              Eh, isn't that simply the long s you're referring to?

              I specifically referred to a page on a reproduction of a genuine contempory (to ol' Bill) print of a Shakespearian play. The word "suck" doesn't and didn't have a long s. On the page it is definitely spealt with "f" and there is a foreword which explains the frequent use of "f" instead of "s".

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by zeromorph (1009305)

          English is actually a good example why the mathematical approach is inappropriate. Your step between Beowulf and Chaucer is the crucial. In this period the linguistic situation in Britain became rather complex, while the vast majority of people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon (a West Germanic language of the Anglo-Frisian branch), the Norman nobility spoke Anglo-Norman, while the clergy used Latin. (Not to forget the different celtic tongues used by the people in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.) All this produ

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            If you cant analyze it mathematically, how can you discover anything at all? If you don't have a significance or error to go with your result then you have no idea if your result is ball park, dead on, or just plain wrong. Everything which can be stated as fact requires a standard estimate of uncertainty from statistics. When that is not available the least reliable source or list of sources on which the conclusion is based is quoted. It is then understood that this exists to guide a future mathematical app
    • Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev alojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.
      I think I speak for us all when I say, OMGWTFBBQ.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by siddesu (698447)
      The trend for simplification is positively there, and the math is right -- the more complex and often-used it is, the bigger the pressure to simplify.

      Just look at them damned Chinese characters and the reform they underwent last century -- compare the characters used in Taiwan or Hong Kong, those in Japan (that were adopted after the Chinese simplified them once) and those that are used in China now (which were simplified gradually even more). The more them characters evolve, the more they look the same.

      Pro
      • by JoshJ (1009085)
        Japanese has a phonetic "alphabet" of sorts that they use when writing things that don't have a symbol, such as foreign words or placenames.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katakana [wikipedia.org]
      • by AoT (107216)
        Did you read the article?

        The whole point is that the less commonly used irregular verbs are more likely to become regularized. It might be different with spelling, but I doubt we'll see much of it in print given the way we have standardized spelling over the past hundred or two hundred years.
      • by Jimmy_B (129296) <slashdot@jimrandom h . o rg> on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:54AM (#20936299) Homepage

        The trend for simplification is positively there, and the math is right -- the more complex and often-used it is, the bigger the pressure to simplify.
        No, that is the OPPOSITE of what happens (and what this paper says)! The more often something is used, the LESS likely it is to be simplified. These simplifications aren't the result of someone deciding to change the way they speak; rather, they're the result of successive generations learning their parents' language imperfectly. If an irregular verb is used all the time, you have to learn it or you'll sound like an idiot. Thus, all native English speakers know all of the conjugations of 'to be'. On the other hand, if you only use an irregular verb twice in your lifetime, you probably won't remember its conjugation, so you'll fall back on general rules. When everyone does this, the regular conjugation becomes the standard.
    • by RuBLed (995686)
      As usual the response to your post should be..

      OH NOES NOT GERMAN...
  • Werd Up (Score:5, Funny)

    by da3dAlus (20553) <dustin...grau@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:08PM (#20935713) Homepage Journal
    I for one welcome our cromulent new verbs!
  • FTA:

    Lieberman, Michel, and their co-authors project that the next word to regularize will likely be "wed."
    Maybe, but Zonk is doing his best [slashdot.org] to make sure that it's "weave" instead.

    (Zonk has, of course, given up hope on regularizing "to be".)
  • by belmolis (702863) <billposer@alum. m i t .edu> on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:18PM (#20935769) Homepage

    This isn't really news. We linguists have known this for a long time, as the article mentions, and we've known why: a child learning a language tends to regularize irregular forms. If he or she then hears the irregular form enough, the child reverts to the irregular form. This is why you'll hear children learning English go through a stage in which their knowledge of verb forms is skimpy but they have irregular forms like "brought", because they are memorizing individual forms, then through a stage in which they produce incorrect but regular forms, which they could not have learned from adults, like "bringed", because they have learned the rule, and through a third stage in which they learn the exceptions to the rule and the irregular forms like "brought" return. Irregular forms will only be learnable if they are sufficiently frequent. The only novelty of this research is the computational ability to carry out an accurate simulation.

    As for predicting the future of the language, that's silly. There is a lot more to language change than what happens to irregular verbs.

    • by samkass (174571) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:25PM (#20935823) Homepage Journal
      More interesting to me than irregular verbs is my son's usage of opposites. He wants me to "plug out" the vacuum cleaner, "buckle out" of his car seat, and-- my favorite-- "shut up" the computer (the opposite, of course, of "shut down"). Also the usages of "hot" or "warm"... the difference between something that is too hot such as food, and something that is too hot like a thick blanket in summer. (When I told him the blanket was too warm for summer, he asked me to cool down the blanket.) The other day he tried Tabasco sauce for the first time, and learned another usage of "hot".

      So are these usages converging the same way as verb irregularity?

      • by bobdotorg (598873) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:40PM (#20935921)
        More interesting to me than irregular verbs is my son's usage of opposites. He wants me to "plug out" the vacuum cleaner, "buckle out" of his car seat, and-- my favorite-- "shut up" the computer (the opposite, of course, of "shut down").

        One can also expand their English vocabulary by working with Indians. Took me a while to figure out WTF 'prepone' meant. As in (say with your best Apu imitation), "We need to prepone the meeting an hour or so." Prepone being the opposite of postpone.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by meburke (736645)
      Rudolf Flesch wrote some books back in the '50's implying that the most modern language we have is...CHINESE! Since Chinese is a spoken language rather than a written language (The writing is mostly pictorial representing whole concepts), it wasn't frozen in place with a bunch of affixes (suffixes, prefixes, etc.) or genders and all that other stuff that makes English hard to learn. Subject, verb, predicate .. That's all there is? You can't regularize verbs better than that! My last girlfriend was Cantonese
      • by Black Parrot (19622) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @01:14AM (#20936413)

        Rudolf Flesch wrote some books back in the '50's implying that the most modern language we have is...CHINESE! Since Chinese is a spoken language rather than a written language (The writing is mostly pictorial representing whole concepts), it wasn't frozen in place with a bunch of affixes (suffixes, prefixes, etc.) or genders and all that other stuff that makes English hard to learn. Subject, verb, predicate .. That's all there is? You can't regularize verbs better than that!
        It's a misconception to think that languages evolve toward regularity. There are processes working in both directions. Believe it or not there's an underlying regularity to English's "irregular" verbs - it's just obscured by several thousand years of evolution. (Read up on ablaut, though the Wiktionary article doesn't do the topic justice.)

        Another example is that Modern English has a "weird" class of adjectives beginning in 'a' that don't be have like other adjectives: asleep awry alive, etc. -- there's a pile of them. I talked to a professor of linguistics, who had published a fairly well known textbook on syntax, and he seemed genuinely puzzled by them. But a basic familiarity with language change reveals that they are actually fossilized prepositional phrases. Cf. the line in A Clockwork Orange, "While you are on life" = "While you are alive". So what looks like an unmotivated class of irregular adjectives is actually just the evolutionary reflex of a very normal, regular syntactic structure.

        To add to the confusion, we're now getting a similar class of irregular adverbs with the derivation from the article 'a' rather than an old preposition, "alot", "awhile", etc., which while denegrated as ignorant spelling are actually a clue to the writer's understanding of the language. In a hundred years (or is that "ahundred"?), people without knowledge of English's history will think we have a class of irregular adjectives *and* adverbs, blissfully unaware that they are just evolved forms of very regular structures.

        Oh, and the properties of Chinese have nothing to do with writing or a lack thereof.
  • Psychohistory? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Xgamer4 (970709) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:23PM (#20935801)
    Admittedly, while it doesn't directly relate to the mathematical analysis of language the ideas behind the study of them are similar. After all, before now mapping out the general patterns of human civilization through mathematical formulas sounded just as absurd as mapping out language patterns using math. And yet, here's an article describing how scientists may have discovered patterns to language. Any thoughts?

    Brief history of psychohistory for those who haven't read The Foundation Trilogy by Asimov:

    Psychohistory is the name of a fictional science, which combined history, sociology, and mathematical statistics, in Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe, to create a (nearly) exact science of the actions of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire.

    From Wikipedia, obviously:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory/ [wikipedia.org]
  • And as predicted 31 years ago (damn I'm old), the IM'ers of the future will use the Decibet:

    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/75/75rdecabet.phtml [jt.org]

  • by Repton (60818) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:29PM (#20935855) Homepage

    Stanislaw Lem wrote a book -- I think it was _The Futurological Congress_ -- which included people who predicted future inventions by predicting possible words. The theory being: things won't be popular unless they have a good name, so by thinking of good names, and then considering what might have those names, you can predict future developments.

  • Neat discovery, but it's hardly the first time researchers have been able to view trends in linguistic evolution. Check out Grimm's Law [wikipedia.org].
    • You do know the entire field of historical linguistics is based around trends in linguistic evolution? A wikipedia link about Grimm's Law is hardly the best way to demonstrate your point.
  • Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc...
  • by xPsi (851544) * on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:54PM (#20935993)
    Irregular verbs with lower frequencies of use -- such as "shrive" and "smite," with half-lives of 300 and 700 years, respectively -- are much more likely to succumb to regularization.

    I'm not sure what fancy-pants sources these guys are using, but 'shirve' and 'smite' are definitely not low frequency verbs in my crowd. I say keep the 'mote' in smote. They will rue the day when 'smitted' crosses my lips!

    • Smitten Zie Deutsche?

      Grocken Zie Greek?

      Seriously folks, now all they need is a study to predict which comes first - the "regularization" of irregular verbs (you'd think they'd just eat-all bran) versus their seriously overdue death.
      • smite
      • shrive
      Aside from their archive of "least used verbs throughout history" where else do you find these words?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by glwtta (532858)
        Aside from their archive of "least used verbs throughout history" where else do you find these words?

        That is a grievous insult to the English language - shrive yourself or I will smite your ass!

        (ok, so I don't have occasion to use "shrive" too often, but "smite" is a very useful word)
  • Lolcats (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Tatisimo (1061320)
    I hope it evolves to something like this:

    im in ur internetz, evolving ur languages [icanhascheezburger.com]

  • I mean no disrespect to the researchers involved here, however this seems an appropriate topic for this question.

    I occasionally see algorithms used to predict future outcomes of a system where the algorithm appears to have been manipulated to fit the data rather than actually attempt to model the system in question. A prime example is one where the "novelty" of the universe is plotted over time and spikes appear in correlation with historic events. My question: Is there a specific term to describe this type
    • I occasionally see algorithms used to predict future outcomes of a system where the algorithm appears to have been manipulated to fit the data rather than actually attempt to model the system in question. A prime example is one where the "novelty" of the universe is plotted over time and spikes appear in correlation with historic events. My question: Is there a specific term to describe this type of shenanigans?

      In the general case it should probably be considered a form of "overfitting", in the sense of what happens when you use a high-order polynomial to pass your plot through all your data points, rather than using a straight line or simple curve and allowing some of the data to scatter around it.

      Of course, if you deliberately do it to misrepresent something, it can be called "lying" rather than "overfitting".

  • According to half a dozen dictionaries [reference.com], "wedded" is already an acceptable past tense for "wed", and is already in use.
  • by Tablizer (95088)
    The only way that COBOL may ever end is when English changes so much that COBOL no longer reads as English.
  • Been done [imdb.com], I think...
  • by Fjan11 (649654) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:47AM (#20937827) Homepage
    Darwin showed that adaptation is much larger in small isolated communities than in larger ones. English already changes a lot slower than, say, Dutch. If the internet turns the world into one big English speaking community than I wonder of their predictions based on past data hold.
  • To google (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ed Avis (5917) <ed@membled.com> on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:49AM (#20937837) Homepage
    What do they mean, 'new verbs entering English, such as "google," are universally regular.'? Everyone knows that it's

    I google
    I gaigle
    I have googlen
  • by Sierpinski (266120) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @09:02AM (#20938655)
    Barbara: "Excuse me Stewardess, but I speak Jive."

    Stewardess: "Oh, good. Please tell him that I'll be right back with some medicine."

    Barbara: (to man) "Jus hang loose blood, she gonna catch you on the rebound with some medicide..."

    Man: "Whatchu talkin' bout momma, my momma didn't raise no dummies, I dug her rap!"

    Barbara: "Cut me some slack jack! (arguing in Jive) Jive-ass fool ain't got no brains... anyhow."

    (Forgive me if I missed a part, trying to do it from memory here....)
  • The past as a guide (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ucblockhead (63650) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:15PM (#20941363) Homepage Journal
    I'm not sure if the past evolution of languages is a good guide to what will happen in the future. The last hundred years are unique in human history in that we can (and do) go back and hear exactly how people talked twenty, forty, a hundred years ago. I suspect that this will have a retarding effect on the rate of language change.

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