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November 7th, 2007

The evolution of verbs

by Barbara Wallraff

If they were made of molecules, we’d call languages living things. They grow and change over time -- in ways more like redwoods and giant tortoises than like humans, since there doesn’t seem to be any fixed limit on how big they can get. They may die -- either of old age or because they’re unlucky enough to be spoken by ethnic groups that themselves die out or assimilate. (The majority of roughly 6,000 languages now spoken are in danger, some experts say.) More happily, new languages are born. They have parents. For instance, modern English is essentially the child of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), with Old Norse, classical Greek and Latin among its distant ancestors.

Now it turns out that language evolves in an even more lifelike way than had been known. A paper published a few weeks ago in the international science journal Nature showed that verbs change by a process similar to natural selection. The paper’s authors, Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel and three colleagues in the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, tracked what has happened to 177 irregular verbs from Old English throughout the past 1,200 years.

Seventy-nine have become regular -- which is to say, their irregular past tenses have gone extinct. For example, “holp,” which used to be the past tense of “help,” has regularized to “helped.” “Wrought,” formerly the past tense of “work,” has regularized to “worked” -- except in special uses such as “wrought iron.” More surprising, the researchers found that irregular verbs become regular at a predictable rate. A verb that’s used one-hundredth as often as another irregular verb will become regular 10 times as fast.

How is this like natural selection? Among living things, traits that help a species survive become more common over generations, while unfavorable traits become less so. Regularity helps a none-too-common verb survive, in the sense that we can remember how to use it. Irregularity might not incline the whole verb toward extinction, but it inclines the irregular forms that way, until the verb eventually becomes regular.

Irregular verbs might seem like an obscure subject, and it’s true that even by the most generous estimates, they make up less than 3 percent of all our verbs. Nonetheless, they are right at the heart of the English we use every day. Every one of the 12 verbs we use most, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is irregular. These are “be,” “have,” “do,” “say,” “get,” “make,” “go,” “know,” “take,” “see,” “come” and “think.”

Don’t worry -- we won’t need to start saying “be,” “beed,” “have,” “haved,” “think,” “thinked” anytime soon. According to the Harvard researchers’ calculations, it will take from 14,400 (for “think”) to 38,800 (for “be”) years for these verbs to become regular. Their irregular forms are safe because we use them so often that doing so has become second nature.

“Wed,” though, seems to be right on the brink -- the verb that’s nearest to changing from irregular to regular. “Now is your last chance to be a ‘newly wed,’” the researchers joked in their paper. “The married couples of the future can only hope for ‘wedded’ bliss.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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