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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Evolution of Language

Researchers from Harvard University have discovered that English verbs undergo natural selection—and their findings have made the cover of this week's Nature. The team, which includes scientists from the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, led by biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak, created an algorithm to compute when irregular English verbs will succumb to the standard rule of the past tense—in other words, when they will be "regularized" to end in "ed."
Their algorithm led them to a simple mathematical formula: A verb used 100 times less frequently will evolve 10 times as fast. The past tense of uncommon irregular verbs like "shrive" and "wed" should end in "-ed" within the next 500 years, they predict. The irregular past tense of common verbs like "be," "have," and "do" should effectively last forever. The team hopes this will be the first in a long line of discoveries linking science and language.—Stephen Mapes