Evolution of English (again)

My last post, Evolution of English, talked about a study in language drift from UPenn, as described in a Science article.

LifeHacker’s “Stop Resisting Change to the English Language” by Jaime Green is talking about the same study.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that randomness is a more powerful component of English’s evolution than previously thought. (The findings can’t necessarily be extrapolated to other languages—as one of the researchers told The Guardian, “English is weird.”)

For a long time, linguists have thought about language as subject to evolutionary selection, much like species. When a language has more than one way to say something, or variable spellings, the “fittest” one wins, with speakers, en masse, selecting for ease, speed, and regularity. But the new research shows that those streamlining forces don’t always seem to win.

By tracking past-tense spellings of 36 verbs—those found to have at least two spellings, like quit/quitted and spilt/spilled—researchers could see a slice of how English, from 1810 to the present, evolved. And they saw that it made no sense. Six of the 36 verbs had one form being actively selected for. And for four of those six, the chosen past-tense form is the irregular one, which in grammatical terms is decidedly unfit.

Researchers expected selective pressures to steer language toward regularity, making the language easier to remember (and more logical!). But no, they saw “Dove” instead of “dived,” at least in American English; “woke” instead of “waked.” There may be other logical factors driving these evolutions—the researchers speculate, for example, that “dove” is favored because it lines up with the similar-sounding, and similarly patterned, “drove.”

Dive’s past tense is dove. It’s an old irregularity and it’s a common one. That’s why it stuck around. That was my argument in 2013 and I haven’t changed my mind. Now I have someone else’s research to help show more research-focused proof.

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