Ben Allen over at PLEKTIX highlighted (highlit?) a paper in Nature last year that compiled and analysis some hard data regarding the evolution of the English language. Entitled Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language, the paper by Lieberman and colleagues looked at the shift from irregular to regular English verbs over the last 1200 years.
The question the authors of the paper ask is, “At what rate do words shift from irregular (go/went) to regular (talk/talked)?” They find a very simple rule to describe this rate: the rate of “regularization” of a word is inversely proportional to the square root of its usage frequency. That is, if an irregular verb is used 100 times more than another it takes 10 times longer before it become regular.
Extrapolating from this rule, the author’s note that they can predict which currently irregular verbs will soonest become regular. The suggest wed/wed is one such precarious irregular verb, soon to become wed/wedded.
Pinker discusses this type of transition in his book Words and Rules and suggests that only commonly used words can stay irregular. He argues that keeping a big list of exceptions like irregular verbs around requires their constant repetition. This study nicely complements this by collecting the empirical evidence and quantifying the change.Mark Reid October 19, 2008 Canberra, Australia