The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 28, 2007

Newly-wed no more

Mathematical linguists at Harvard joke that now may be the last chance to be newly-wed. The irregular past-tense of the verb wed will soon regularise, they add. We'll all shortly be using the expression newly-wedded.

Across time, the English language has simplified its verb endings considerably. From its Germanic roots with complicated declensions, Old English moved via Norman French and other accretions into the language we adore today. Along the way, it dropped the infrequently used irregular constructs for the past tense and past participles, regularising them with the standard ending -ed.

The Harvard researchers, Erez Lieberman and colleagues, postulate an inverse square-root law for this regularisation of a verb as a function of its usage frequency. That is to say, a verb used a hundred times less often than another will regularise ten times faster.

How did they establish this? They picked out 177 irregular verbs from Old English (dating to about 1200 years ago). 145 of these verbs remained irregular in Middle English (about 800 years ago). Today, only 98 of them are irregular. What sorts of verbs are we talking about? Lieberman et al list help, laugh, reach, walk, work.

Verbs such as be and think have been so frequently used that the process of regularisation extends across tens of thousands of years. Lieberman uses the term half-life for this period. Verbs with long half-lives are unlikelyl to change their usage. But verbs such as smite whose effective lives are of the order of 300 years, are much much likelier to mutate.

Which brings us to their quip about wed. This is a verb on the cusp of regularisation, as evidenced by the current large-scale use of the previously unseen regular form wedded.

For further details, check out their paper in Nature here.

A good user-friendly elucidation of the work is available here.


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