How do Languages Evolve?

Languages change in strange manners. There are words in Indo-European languages that are still very similar – like the pronunciation of the word for numeral 2 – Dos (Spanish), Do (Hindi), Dva (Russian). Yet, there are many words, obviously that are very different! How do the languages evolve? It is really Survival of the Fittest!

Languages change in every generation. One generation starts pronouncing words in ways different from the earlier generation. And these differences compound over the generations to create changes that are pronounced indeed!

The most used words remain very similar, yet the less used change. As the research cited in the journal “Nature” of more than 200 words in English over the ages have changed. Helped, for example, was once upon a time Holp!

Researchers led by Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, southern England, looked at how 200 basic words diverged over thousands of years among English Russian, Greek and Spanish.

Much as in evolutionary biology, the entire family of 87 Indo-European languages spoken today are thought to share a common origin reaching back some 10,000 years.

An English speaker bereft of foreign-language skills would have a hard time guessing that “oupa” in Greek, “Schwanz” in German, or “queue” in French all mean the same thing as “tail” in English.

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The statistical correlation between the frequency of word use and its “mutation” is extremely high, the authors say.

“The relationship explains 50 percent of the variation in replacement rates between different words — a level of statistical power rarely observed in the social sciences,” comments Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland.

In a parallel study also published in Nature, Erez Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist and mathematician at Harvard, probed changes over time in English verbs, especially the transition from irregular to regular verbs.

In Old English, changes in tense rarely adhered to specific rules, but gradually these “irregular” verbs have become standardised.

Lieberman and his colleagues, looking at 177 verb forms, show a mathematically exact link between frequency of use and change: a verb used 100 times more often than another will regularize 10 times more slowly.

Though they use very different methods, both papers arrive at the same conclusion: frequently used words are resistant to change.

Exactly why this relationship holds, however, is unclear. One possibility, according to the researchers, is that new variations — or “mutations,” in the language of evolutionary biology — are rarer with commonly-used words because people using them are less apt to make mistakes. Put simply, we best remember those words which we use every day.

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