08 November 2007

Predicting the Future of the Past Tense

Mathematical biology researchers at Harvard have quantified the rate at which irregular verbs become regular over time, at least in the English language. But the result is so precise that it is hard to imagine it wouldn't hold true for other languages.

Irregular verbs become regular at a rate that is inversely proportional to the square root of their usage frequency. So if verb X is used 1/10th as often as verb Y, it will become regular 100 times faster.

Lieberman and Michel's group computed the "half-lives" of the surviving irregular verbs to predict how long they will take to regularize. The most common ones, such as "be" and "think," have such long half-lives (38,800 years and 14,400 years, respectively) that they will effectively never become regular. Irregular verbs with lower frequencies of use -- such as "shrive" and "smite," with half-lives of 300 and 700 years, respectively -- are much more likely to succumb to regularization.

Lieberman, Michel, and their co-authors project that the next word to regularize will likely be "wed."


1 comment:

Mark said...

"Sneaked" and "snuck" go against the grain here. "Sneaked" is the correct word (according to most style guides) but "snuck" is gaining acceptance.