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Math Science

The Evolution of Language 528

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 belmolis ( 702863 ) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT 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 Repton ( 60818 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:27PM (#20935835) Homepage

    Actually, apparently this is widely misattrbuted [] to Mark Twain; it's actually from a letter by a guy named M. J. Shields.

  • 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.
  • 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 glwtta ( 532858 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:50AM (#20936281) Homepage
    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)
  • by Jimmy_B ( 129296 ) <slashdot@jimran[ ] ['dom' in gap]> 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.
  • 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".


  • 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.
  • by zooblethorpe ( 686757 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @02:01AM (#20936635)

    As a fluent Japanese speaker and part-time studier of Korean, I can vouch for the grammatical similarities -- most intriguing. And also as a part-time studier of Chinese, I can vouch that Chinese and Korean are about as similar as English and Korean -- Korean has borrowed words from both languages, but structurally resembles neither. Okay, so Chinese influenced Korean (and Japanese too) in terms of how counters are used (words like "brace" in "a brace of ducks", or "murder" in "a murder of crows", or "loaf" in "three loaves of bread"), but otherwise Chinese and Korean have pitifully little to do with each other. For that matter, Chinese is closer to English structurally speaking than it is to Korean, so there. ;)


  • by bjoeg ( 629707 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @04:12AM (#20937127)
    This means in future, we will see or actually hear more use of the words "Such as" and "like"

    Every morning I hear the US exchange students (espacially the female ones) in the metro talk, and partly annoyed how the word "like" is used as the every fourth word.
  • by fiendie ( 934679 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @04:27AM (#20937187)
    For anyone who liked this:
    It's taken from a book written by Lynne Truss published in the UK roughly 3 years ago.
    Amazon Link []
  • by iogan ( 943605 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @04:46AM (#20937251) Homepage

    Thanks for pointing this out, and for bringing up the verb "to be." This is, by default, the oldest verb in any language (except perhaps Russian, which they tell me doesn't have it), and therefore the most irregular. Based on this, I have formulated the theory that "to be" is irregular in every language (that has it). In good scientific methodology, I am seeking out evidence to the contrary. Can anyone provide any?
    Russian does have the verb "to be", just not in the present tense. Its usage varies considerably from English, but then so do most languages. A lot of languages lack the copula-verb (as it is known) in the present tense, and do very well without it. When Borat says "She niiiice" you understand what he means perfectly well without the copula. :)

    The verb is indeed irregular in many languages, but nonetheless completely regular in others. One of the problems people have in deciding whether a feature of language is universal is the very small subset of languages they've been exposed to.

    Most of the languages you can name off hand are all part of the Indoeuropean family of languages, which has a very large number of speakers, but does not constitute a large number of languages. Thus a lot of features common to Indo-european languages are taken to be linguistic universals when really they are common only to a very small subset of human languages.
  • Re:Bawstan Habah? (Score:3, Informative)

    by CmdrGravy ( 645153 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @05:24AM (#20937427) Homepage
    The Worcester in the midlands is also pronounced Wuster, the only people who ask directions to War-ces-tah are Americans and Londoners, usually on route to Edin-burg. I think in the general most places, in the English Midlands, at least spelt -cester are pronounced in a similar way e.g. Alcester - Allster, Bicester - Bister, Gloucester - Gloster, Leicester - Lester, Towcester - Toaster apart from the inevitable exceptions - Cirencester although apparently this is still sometimes called sissitter.
  • by Eivind ( 15695 ) <> on Thursday October 11, 2007 @05:58AM (#20937567) Homepage
    To be retains a lot of cruft that has fallen off less used verbs, such as distinct forms for different persons. I am, you are, he is, someone who doesn't know english won't even see any signs that these are the same word at all.

    Compare I bike, you bike, we all bike.... the distinction by person is useless the way it is in english, I wonder if it'll disappear completely outside of "to be". (for other words you have the "he bikes" thing)

    Thing is, this actually -did- make sence at some point (or atleast it served a purpose) in many languages that universally have different forms for different persons, you can remove the personal pronoun, since it's clear from the verb alone which person is meant.

    "I am a boy" is superfluous; "am boy" conveys the same meaning since "am" can only be used for "I". Works that way in finnish, for example:

    "puhun Suomi" (I speak finnish) "puhut Soumi" (you speak finnish), with enough grammar you can do away with many small words, and you can make the sequence of words more freely choosable. In english you make questions by reordering words. "you can have a cookie." "can I have a cookie?", with grammar that can also be done away with; In finnish you use -ko to symbolise question, so no need to reorder words (or add "do you" or similar antics)

    "puhutko Saksa?" ("Do you speak German?")

    In general though, it seems that the trend is that -less- grammar and -more small-word and word-sequence is used. English sure is losing grammar at a noticeable rate, same for Norwegian and German.
  • by langelgjm ( 860756 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @09:48AM (#20939129) Journal

    Actually, no. There's not much Norman French in English. The French in English is largely Parisian French and came in rather later, as a result of fashion rather than invasion (although the earlier Norman invasion did provide a path for the fashion to spread to England).

    I'm going to have to disagree with you here. While later French did have an impact on English as a result of fashion, Anglo-Normand massively influenced Old English. From Histoire de la Langue: du Latin à l'Ancien Français, Peter A. Machonis, University Press of America, 1990:

    Cependant, il faut dire que ces trois siècles de contact linguistique avec le français ont beaucoup influencé le cours de l'histoire de la langue anglaise. L'anglo-normand n'a pas influencé la syntaxe de l'anglais, mais il a beaucoup contribué au lexique de l'anglais à l'époque. Pour cette raison, les vocabulaires de l'anglais et du français se ressemblent encore beaucoup de nos jours.

    I assume you read French, but for those who don't, here is a rough translation:

    However, it must be said that these three centuries of linguistic contact with French greatly influenced the course of history of the English language. Anglo-Normand did not influence English syntax, but it greatly contributed to the English lexicon at that time. This is why modern English and French vocabulary look similar.

    Also, from Wikipedia's article on Anglo-Normand: []

    Although Anglo-Norman was falling out of everyday use by the 13th century (Middle English was becoming stronger), it has left an indelible mark on English. Thousands of words, phrases and expressions are derived from it. English would have been a very different language without the influence of Anglo-Norman.

    As a specific example, take the word "cattle" (citations are the OED entries on "cattle" and "chattel"):

    In legal Anglo-French, the Norman catel was superseded at an early period by the Parisian chatel; this continued to be used in the earlier and wider sense (subject however to legal definition), and has in modern times passed into a certain current use as CHATTEL, so that the phrase just cited is now also since 16th c. 'goods and chattels'. Chatel, pl. chateux, was the form adopted in legal Anglo-French; it appears in vernacular use in the 13th c., and the pl. chateux is occasional as a technical term in ME.; but the actual form adopted in Eng. was the Norman catel, later cattell, cattle.
  • by background image ( 1001510 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @11:40AM (#20940865)

    The 's' in print looked a lot like an 'f' because it actually was an 'f'.

    No it wasn't [].

    It was a lot cheaper and easier than trying to get an 's' carved into a block.

    Again, this is a bit nonsensical. Do you really think the complexity of letterforms caused printers to modify their shapes? If so, how do you account for "a" or "g" or--even worse--the ampersand?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:28PM (#20947551)
    The version we used to hear was a bit more crass, and involved relationships:

    A kiwi eats roots shoots and leaves.

Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.