5.10.2009

The Language of the Future: Evolutionary Math Breaks the Code

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2009/05/l-the-language-.html
http://ocw.mit.edu/NR/rdonlyres/Brain-and-Cognitive-Sciences/9-402Language-and-ThoughtFall2002/072036C6-6082-47E2-A7A8-7C19F9CDD290/0/chp_9_402.gif
Harvard mathematicians have found that words evolve in a concise manner directly related to frequency of usage. The research looked at the evolution of the English language over the past 1,200 years and found that it’s the infrequently-used words with the habit of changing.
Apparently, just as genes and organisms undergo natural selection, words are also subject to a similarly intense pressure to "regularize" as the language develops. The researchers quantified this trend and compare it with biological evolution.
"Mathematical analysis of this linguistic evolution reveals that irregular verb conjugations behave in an extremely regular way- one that can yield predictions and insights into the future stages of a verb's evolutionary trajectory," says Erez Lieberman, a specialist in evolutionary math at Harvard University. "We measured something no one really thought could be measured, and got a striking and beautiful result."
What they found is that the less often a word is said, the faster it will change over time, whereas more commonly uttered words are much more resistant to change. The researchers believe this is because often-used irregulars are easy to remember and get right, whereas seldom-used irregulars are more likely to be forgotten. Speakers often mistakenly apply the ‘-ed’ rule. The most commonly used word that they found this happened to was the verb ‘to help’ – the past tense was once ‘holp’, but is now ‘helped’.
"We're really on the front lines of developing the mathematical tools to study evolutionary dynamics," says Jean-Baptiste Michel, a graduate student in systems biology at Harvard Medical School. "Before, language was considered too messy and difficult a system for mathematical study, but now we're able to successfully quantify an aspect of how language changes and develops."
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