Shifty Talk: Probing the process of word evolution

11:17am, October 10, 2007

Here's an evolutionary talking point: Two new studies quantify parts of the mechanism by which frequently used words change slowly over many millennia whereas rarely used words more rapidly take on new forms.

In fact, frequency of word usage exerts a "lawlike" influence on the rapidity of language evolution, the research teams conclude in the Oct. 11 Nature. This discovery offers a new tool for retracing the history of major language families, reconstructing ancient tongues, and predicting which words will undergo future alterations.

"We expect all languages to diverge initially in the least frequently used parts of their vocabulary," says evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading in England.

Pagel's group focused on Indo-European languages. Some words for the same meanings differ strikingly across the more than 100 languages and dialects of that family, while others take similar forms.

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