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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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  • Bawstan Habah? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by v_1_r_u_5 ( 462399 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @10:57PM (#20935625)
    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!
  • Hari Seldon... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by beav007 ( 746004 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:01PM (#20935653) Journal that you?
  • by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:10PM (#20935733) Journal

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

    (Zonk has, of course, given up hope on regularizing "to be".)
  • 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: []
  • 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 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.

  • by siddesu ( 698447 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:36PM (#20935893)
    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.

    Probably in the end it'll all end up where Korea is -- they have more or less given up on characters and switched to alphabet. Which is where English was back then ;)
  • by meburke ( 736645 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:50PM (#20935965)
    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 (from Hong Kong) and since Cantonese doesn't really exist in a written form, it constantly changes patterns and vocabulary. I once had a book that showed 50 common patterns of Chinese language (VERY helpful book!), but it's getting harder to distinguish linguisitc patterns as Chinese "modernizes".

    In Flesch's book, "How to Write, Speak and Think more effectively" he suggests getting clear communication by pretending you were composing in Chinese. Hmmmm..I need to find that book...
  • 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!

  • Lolcats (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Tatisimo ( 1061320 ) on Wednesday October 10, 2007 @11:59PM (#20936027)
    I hope it evolves to something like this:

    im in ur internetz, evolving ur languages []

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:23AM (#20936161) Journal
    "(code begins) (open paren) (String begins) (sentence begins) (sentence ends) (String ends) (close paren) (code ends)"

    It may "make sense" but as is common in programming it does not fit the original simple requirement, in other words: where has the quote gone?
  • Sorry, but this is absolutely false. Korean has dialects that differ significantly from each other - there is no single unified language. Nor did the king ever standardize the language. Korean is no more artificial than any other human language. This appears to be a garbled version of the development of the Hangul alphabet by king Sejong and his advisors. This was a great development, but it was just a writing system, not a standardization of the language itself.

    Furthermore, it is not true that someone who speaks Chinese or Japanese can quickly pick up Korean. Chinese and Korean are not only unrelated but of radically different types. Chinese speakers find Korean quite difficult. Japanese speakers find Korean somewhat easier because the two languages are very similar in grammatical type, but even so most of the vocabulary is quite unfamiliar and the morphology, though similar in a general typological way, is quite different in detail.

  • by Estanislao Martínez ( 203477 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:52AM (#20936289) Homepage

    Languages are 'derived', sure - they evolve as derivations of other languages and/or common usage that pushes some words into popularity while others fall into history.

    Linguistics 101 lesson: a language is not a bag of words. Any generalization about language that treats it as if it is some bag of words (e.g., in this case, that language change consists of new words entering the bag, while other words fall out of it) shows a profound ignorance of the fundamental ideas of linguistics. A language is a grammar; people invent and adopt new words spontaneously all the time, but not, say, morphological paradigms, case agreement, or new forms of valence-changing rules like the passive or the causative alternation. (Yes, I'm using words that most people who read this won't understand, but that's the point--if you don't understand terms like that, your "insights" into laguage aren't very valuable.)

    The Korean language that has been in use for the last four hundred years is the only 'human' invented language on the planet. At one time, when the country was unified by one King, it became clear that the multiplicity of dialects in use around the country were barriers prohibiting trade, mobility, communication, learning from each other, etc. The top thinkers were gathered and ordered to design a language that was simple to learn and and write. Once this was done, the King simply decreed that all citizens adopt it, shedding their separate dialects.

    That sounds like a combination of myth and hyperbole about a perfectly ordinary language standardization process (e.g., the kind that happened in Spain during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile, and again after the publication of Antonio de Nebrija's grammar). I don't know what Korean king you're talking about here; my first thought was Sejong the Great, but the timeline is wrong (he lived about 600 years ago, not 400). At any rate, his great contribution was an orthography (Hangeul) that wasn't adopted until much later.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11, 2007 @12:57AM (#20936309)
    The 's' in print looked a lot like an 'f' because it actually was an 'f'. It was a lot cheaper and easier than trying to get an 's' carved into a block.
  • 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.

  • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @03:42AM (#20937015)

    In fact, Fuck, as in "Fuck you," isn't even properly a verb: English sentences without overt grammatical subjects []. To summarize: "Fuck you or I'll take away your teddy bear" is not grammatically correct; neither is "Describe and fuck communism."

    And, of course, XKCD has something to say about computational linguists [].

  • Re:That's Sick (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11, 2007 @04:49AM (#20937271)
    Well, TFA points that natural languages evolve towards being more like Esperanto (in other words, school kids are lazy and they simplify by ignorance, foreigners substitute lack of linguistic knowledge with "common sense"). I don't see the point of your reply to GP, who seems to abhor regularization, not existing irregularities.
  • by zeromorph ( 1009305 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @04:56AM (#20937295)

    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 produced a contact situation in which social (prestige) factors and political developments influenced the linguistic "evolution".

    Of course one can model any change of state over time using a mathematical evolutionary approach, but it won't help in understanding what actually happened. Current mathematical approaches to language change are much to over-simplified to discover anything significant, but if it makes them happy, I guess it won't hurt anyone.

  • by Bloke down the pub ( 861787 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @05:02AM (#20937319)
    I'd not seen that one, but the one where it morphs into German [] is quite common.
  • Going back in time (Score:2, Interesting)

    by weberjn ( 771517 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:16AM (#20937963)
    OK, languages and english get simpler over time. But, if we go back in time, why were languages more complex?

    Latin is more complex than french or spanish. Then, were the ancestors of latin (indogermanic) super-complex? This is odd, as I guess that prehistoric societies were more primitiv and there was no literature, so why would they have had such complex languages?
  • by Fruit ( 31966 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @08:39AM (#20938435) Homepage
    Eh, isn't that simply the long s [] you're referring to? That has nothing to do with "running out of esses".
  • 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11, 2007 @05:32PM (#20946227)
    Y'all know that in Australia, a wombat is someone who eats, roots and leaves. That's not too polite, especially on a first date.
  • by Max Littlemore ( 1001285 ) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:13PM (#20947361)

    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".

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