Two evolutionary biologists and two linguists from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed historical language data to examine the evolution of English. In a letter to Nature, they argue for random drift, according to Michael Erard in a Science article.
The researchers used statistical methods from population genetics to analyze three well-known changes in the English language: how past-tense verbs in American English have taken the “-ed” ending, (as when “spilt” became “spilled”), how the word “do” became an auxiliary verb in Early Modern English (as in “Did you sing?”), and how negative sentences were made in Old to Early Modern English.
When it came to the verbs, they found that drift’s influence was stronger when the verb was less frequent. Only six past tense changes in their data set, such as “lighted” to “lit,” were deemed to have changed for purposeful reasons, such as being easier to learn and use.
This doesn’t seem to me to be that exciting or revolutionary, though I suppose the research to support it is significant.
Why doesn’t it seem revolutionary? Because I already knew it–and gave a speech on it, in 2013.
Verbs have gotten simplified. We used to have seven different sets of normal endings. Now we only have one—that –ed you learned in elementary school. However, the most common verbs, the verbs we use the most, are the ones most likely to have kept their original form—so there are [still] seven sets of endings instead of just one.
That is rather cool because you can always tell that a verb is old—really old—if it has an odd ending.
For example, the past tense of Dive—and I’m going to tell you this, not ask you because one of the authors I have been reading recently misused it twice—is dove. Dive, dove. But the past tense of jive is not jove. Jive is a new verb, so its past tense is jived. dive, dove… jive, jived.
The –ed ending was one of our seven endings in English, so just because a verb ends in –ed in the past tense doesn’t mean that it isn’t old… We’re exceptional like that.