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                    How-Does-the-Language-Evolve-2 - How Does Language Evolve?- Basic English will be the same over time - Science and Research

Language is a living organism. And just as any living organism, it experiences evolution. Will we be able to understand the English of the year 3,000? It seems that at least at a basic level, the answer is positive. The words which are used the most in everyday language are the most conservative, as found by two new researches.

A Harvard team investigated the evolution of English verb conjugations over a 1,200-year period while a team at the University of Reading in England looked at cognates (words of common origin, sounding similarly in various languages and having almost the same meaning, like "water" and the German "wasser") to see how all Indo-European tongues evolved from a common ancestor 6,000-10,000 years ago.

"What our frequency effect allows us to do is identify…ultraconserved linguistic elements. Namely, they're the words we use all the time." said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biology professor at Reading.

Pagel's team focused on some 200 words in 87 Indo-European languages, like
"water," "two," "to die" and "where." The number of different types of cognates for each word varied from one (showing that all the words sound in a similar way) for the most used concepts like numbers to as many as 46 various basic sounds to describe a single notion like "bird".

The word for "three" in all Indo-European languages, for instance, sounds like the one in English: from "tres" in Spanish to "drei" in German, the Hindi "theen", "trei" in Romanian, "tri" in Slavic. But "bird" has various sounds connected with it: for example in Romance (Latin derived) languages: "pajaro/ave" in Spanish, "oiseau" in French, "pasare" in Romanian (paser/ave in Latin).

The team then focused on the frequency of use of each word in only 4 Indo-European languages: English, Spanish, Greek and Russian.

"They were used at similar rates across the board even if the words with the same meaning were not cognates. The high frequency words in Spanish are the same as the high frequency English. That [indicated] that we could come up with a kind of Indo-European frequency of use." said Pagel.

The data revealed that only 750 years are required to replace less used words and even 10,000 years in the case of the most frequently employed ones.

The Harvard team traced verb conjugations in English from the Beowulf age 1,200 years ago through Shakespeare in the 16th century to modern English. In time, many irregular past tense forms of verbs disappeared and the verb now obeys the "regular verbs" rule: adding "-ed" to the end.

Old English had verbs which are still irregular "sing" / "sang," "go" / "went" but also some irregular (now regular) like "smite", with "smote" in Old English which turned into "smited" and "slink" whose "slunk" 1,200 years ago is now "slinked".

They located 177 verbs that were irregular in Old English and 145 that were still irregular in Middle English; today, only 98 of the 177 verbs have not been "regularized.'"

The 177 irregular Old English verbs revealed that those which evolved most rapidly into regular conjugational forms had a rarer use than those which have come to us unchanged. Statistical analysis showed that if one verb was spoken 100 times less frequently than another, it would change 10 times more rapidly than the verb used more often. The team forecasts that the next verb to turn regular is wed, whose past tense will turn from wed to wedded.

"By being more frequent, a verb is more stable," said co-author Erez Lieberman, a graduate student in applied mathematics at Harvard University.

"Languages are constantly changing. In biological evolution that fact has been given a lot of attention, but the fact is that in languages this is happening all the time, [as well]. Darwin in [The Descent of Man] commented that languages were evolving over time, and it was just like speciation." said Partha Niyogi, author of the book The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution and a professor of computer science and statistics at the University of Chicago.


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