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In all languages, the most frequently used words evolve at the slowest pace, say researchers in a paper published in Nature. In one of the papers, Harvard University researchers researched the evolution of English verb conjugations spanning 1,200 years while the Reading University researchers reviewed cognates (words sounding similar in different languages and carrying the same connotation, such as “water” and the German “wasser”) to discover how all Indo-European tongues have evolved from a single, common ancestor.
Pagel and his co-workers examined some 210 words in 87 Indo-European languages, including those for “water,” “two,” “to die” and “where.” The number of cognate classes for each word ranged from one for frequent concepts such as numbers to 46 different basic sounds to portray a single entity like a bird. The word used to describe the idea of three in all Indo-European languages and English is quite similar: from tres in Spanish to drei in German to the Hindi teen. Contrarily, bird has several sounds like pajaro in Spanish and oiseau in French.
Thereafter, they narrowed their attention to their usage frequency in four Indo-European languages—English, Spanish, Greek and Russian. It was found that they were used at similar rates even if the synonymous words were not cognates. “The high frequency words in Spanish are the same as in those the high frequency English,” say he. “That points to the possibility of our coming up with an Indo-European frequency of use.”
The researchers have found that it would take just 750 years to replace less-used words and up to 10,000 years for new words to come into existence. The Harvard researchers studied the roots of the English language, tracing verb conjugations from 1,200 years ago to its current form. Over time, many past tense forms of verbs have died out in the English language and now only one persists as a rule: adding “-ed” to the verb-ending.
Some research on grammatical texts from Old English catalogued all the irregular verbs. Among them: the still irregular “sing”/“sang,” “go”/“went” as well as the now-regularized “smite” which once was “smote” in Old English but since has become “smited,” and “slink,” which is now “slinked” but 1,200 years ago was “slunk.” The researchers identified 177 irregular verbs in Old English and 145 that were still irregular in Middle English; however today, only 98 of the 177 verbs remain not “regularized.”
After computing their usage frequency, the researchers concluded that the words that evolved most quickly into regular forms were used less than others. In reality, given two verbs, if one was used 100 times less frequently than others, it would evolve 10 times faster than them. They also predict that the past tense of wed will regularize from wed to wedded in near future.
Bela Sen, in her The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution says these findings are in line with lexical evolution models. “Languages are constantly changing,” she notes. “In biological evolution, that fact has received great attention, but linguistically, this is happening constantly.”
If you were to complete the last paragraph above, which of the following would be the best bet?