Tracking the evolution of language
Researchers discover that irregular verbs change in a predictable manner -- just like genes and living organisms.
By Denise Gellene
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Tracing the evolution of English verbs over 1,200 years -- from the Old English of "Beowulf" to the modern English of "The Princess Diaries" -- researchers have found that the majority of irregular verbs are going the way of Grendel, falling to the linguistic equivalent of natural selection.
The irregular verbs, governed by confusing and antiquated rules, came under evolutionary pressure to obey the modern "-ed" rule of regular verb conjugation, according to a report today in the journal Nature.
That the English language has undergone dramatic change over a millennium will come as no surprise to generations of high school students who have struggled to decipher "Beowulf," which dates to the 9th century, or Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," written about 1200.
Linguists have constructed elaborate "family trees" showing how English has developed over time but have been unable to detect the principle driving irregular verbs toward regularity.
The researchers, led by Martin A. Nowak, an evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, discovered that irregular verbs evolve in a predictable manner -- just like genes and living organisms. Analyzing databases containing millions of words, Nowak and colleagues showed that the patterns of change depended on how often irregular verb forms were used.