Evolution Of The English Language Is Random And Inevitable, Say Biologists


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

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Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from "Ic ne secge" (Beowulf, c. 900) to "Ic ne sege noht" (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to "I seye not" (Chaucer, c. 1400) to "I doe not say" (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar "I don't say" (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900). A team from Penn State used massive digital libraries along with inference techniques from population genetics to quantify the forces responsible for language evolution, such as in Jespersen's cycle of negation, depicted here.  Cherissa Dukelow, 2017, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Wuzzup? The way we use language is constantly shifting, morphing, and growing. Just think of how differently the English language is expressed in new TV shows compared to Shakespearean plays.

The way language evolves is often compared to how life evolves through natural selection. Languages, just like genes, are transmitted down the generations. The theory goes that odd bits of grammar, certain words, or perhaps spellings can slightly change at each stage. The variations that “work” well with wider social or cognitive factors tend to stick, while clumsy and ineffective ones tend to fizzle out. If this is the case, then we can apply some kind of structure to the evolution of language, just like natural selection.


A group of biologists and linguists have teamed up to see if there’s any truth to this. Their study, published in Nature, suggests there’s no formal selection pressure, the only real force at play is another feature of evolution: random chance.

"Linguists usually assume that when a change occurs in a language, there must have been a directional force that caused it. Whereas we propose that languages can also change through random chance alone," Joshua Plotkin, biology professor and senior author on the paper, said in a statement

Just like studying the data in an organism's genome, the researchers gathered over 400 million words. With this database, they tracked different types of grammatical changes from 1100 CE to the 21st century.

In particular, they looked at the regularization of past-tense verbs, like the change from “dived” to “dove” or “wed” to “wedded”. They found at least 36 verbs like this. Using a data analysis technique that Plotkin and colleagues had developed to detect natural selection in microbial populations, they showed that most verb form variations rose to dominance due to chance, not selective forces.


As another example, look at the word “do”. By our current use of the word, “do” did not exist in the same way 800 years ago. Instead of saying “Do they say?" or "They do not say", one would say: "Say they?" or "They say not."

The use of the periphrastic "do" emerged in two stages, first in questions ("Don't they say?") around 1500 CE, then in imperative and declarative statements around 200 years later. Plotkin explained: “It seems that, once ‘do’ was introduced in interrogative phrases, it randomly drifted to higher and higher frequency over time. Then, once it became dominant in the question context, it was selected for in other contexts, the imperative and declarative, probably for reasons of grammatical consistency or cognitive ease.”

No doubt linguists will continue to argue about the role of randomness and selection pressures in the evolution of language. However, one thing is more certain: change is inevitable.


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  • English language