Linguistics in Nature

I was over at the library earlier this week looking up an article in the actual print copy of Nature (a rare thing these days) and I noticed a few linguistics articles. Hard to miss as it was splashed all over the cover… Now, linguistics is definitely not my thing but some of you may be interested. I haven’t read them fully; I’m just passing them on. I will say though that when the use the word ‘evolution’ they mean in a biological, Neo-Darwinian way. Most academic libraries should have electronic access to Nature as it is one of the two most popular science journals.

News and Views (Commentary)

W. Tecumseh Fitch (11 October 2007) “An Invisible Hand: Quantitative relationships between how frequently a word is used and how rapidly it changes over time raise intriguing questions about the way individual behaviours determine large-scale linguistic and cultural change. Nature, vol 449, p. 665-667.


Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkison and Andrew Meade. (11 October 2007) “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Nature, vol 449, p. 717-720.

From the abstract:

“Here we use four large and divergent language corpora (English, Spanish, Russian, and Greek) and a comparative database of 200 fundamental vocabulary meanings in 87 Indo-European languages to show that frequency with which these words are used in modern language predicts thier rate of replacement over thousands of years of Indo-European language evolution. Across all 200 meanings, frequently used words evolve at slower rates and infrequently used words evolve more rapidly. …We propose that the frequency which which specific words are used in everyday language exerts a general and law-like influence on their rates of evolution…”

Saving the best for last, in my humble opinion…

Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptist Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang and Martin Nowak. (11 October 2007) “Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language.” Nature, vol. 449, p. 713-716 (with supplementary data available online).

Entire abstract: “Human language is based on grammatical rules. Cultural evolution allows these rules to change over time. Rules compete with each other: as new rules rise to prominence, old ones die away. To quantify the dynamics of language evolution, we studied the regularlization of English verbs over the past 1,200 years. Although an elaborate system of productive conjugations existed in English’s proto-Germanic ancestor, Modern English uses the dental suffix, ‘-ed’, to signify past tense. Here we describe the emergence of this linguistic rule amidst the evolutionary decay of its exceptions, known to us as irregular verbs. We have generated a data set of verbs whose conjugations have been evolving for more than a millennium, tracking inflectional changes to 177 Old-English irregular verbs. If these irregular verbs, 145 remained irregular in Middle English and 98 are still irregular today. We study how the rate of regularlization depends on the frequency of word usage. The half-life of an irregular verb scales as the square root of its usage frequency: a verb that is 100 times less frequent regularlizes 10 times as fast. Our study provides a quantitative analysis of the regularization process by which ancestral forms gradually yield to an emerging linguistic rule.”


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