Language change

According to a New Scientist article I came across the other day, frequently-used words tend to be more resistant to change then words that are used less often.

A team at the University of Reading lead by Mark Pagel, an Evolutionary Biologist, compared the words used to express 200 different meanings in 87 different Indo-European languages. They found that the more frequently a word is used in speech, the less likely it is to change over time. They also found the conjunctions and prepositions tend to change more readily than numbers, pronouns and question words like who, what, where, etc. The team calculated a ‘mutation rate’ for each of the words the studied and predicted that frequently-used words are likely to resist change for over 10,000 years.

Another study at Harvard University demonstrated that the most frequently-used English irregular verbs have tended to remain stable over time, while most of the least frequently-used ones have become regular.

This entry was posted in Evolution, Language, Words and phrases.

5 Responses to Language change

  1. Dominic says:

    I think it’s important to note that when they say “change”, they mean “replacement”, not sound change. E.g., the word ‘two’ in English goes all the way back to proto-Indo-European, and it’s undergone all sorts of regular sound changes (d > t, for one), but what the authors mean here is that the word hasn’t been replaced by another word meaning ‘two’.

  2. AR says:

    To continue what Dominic said, irregular verbs that are commonly used also take on new forms more readily than less commonly used verbs. For example, the modern English verb “to be”, has the most forms of any verb (being the most used) and it has formed from two Anglo-Saxon verbs that both meant “to be” (in some way or another).

  3. Aeetlrcreejl says:

    This is not very surprising.

  4. Tolkien_Freak says:

    It’s not surprising about the replacement, no. However, it would be surprising if they were talking about sound change, as you would think (or at least I would think) that words which are used more frequently would be more likely to undergo changes making them easier to say.

  5. BG says:

    My German teacher told us that strong (irregular) verbs were used more often and therefore became strong originally. I guess if they began being used less often later on they could then be reregularized. I am pretty sure strong verbs (Indo-European Ablaut) go back to Proto Indo-European so I am not sure exactly how all this fits together.