Words on the Brink!

That’s the rather sensational headline on the cover of this week’s Nature. Inside are two papers on word evolution, with the more staid titles “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history”* and “Linguistics: an Invisible Hand”.

The premise of the first is straightforward and rather commonsensical: words that are used a lot don’t change much. In other words, the rate at which words tend to morph is in inverse proportion to how often they’re used. For example, all Indo-European languages apparently use the same root form for the word “two.” It’s obviously a widely-used word, and it has evolved hardly at all. The authors do a statistical analysis of four large language corpora (language corpora: the subject of an upcoming post, btw) to back this up. Good stuff. This is apparently the process by which the once little-used “vergerhade” came to be defined as an animatronic groucho marx in a tutu and straitjacket.

Nature’s sister site, Nature News, has a good overview of these papers, geared towards a more general audience.

* Nature is trying to charge $18 to download this single article, which is, if you’ll pardon my French, fucking nuts, especially given that most of what they publish is publicly funded research–we’ve already paid for it! So I had one of my spies steal it. You can get the full PDF here.

2 thoughts on “Words on the Brink!

  1. The articles do not analyze it, but the word “fuck” has stayed unchanged over five hundred years.

    Tapen Sinha

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