Article published in:Tracking Language Evolution as an Interdisciplinary, Cross-Theoretical Enterprise
Edited by Livio Gaeta
[Evolutionary Linguistic Theory 2:2] 2020
► pp. 118–126
A complex system approach to language evolution
The case of regular versus irregular verbs in English
Regularities in natural language systems, despite their cognitive advantages in terms of storage and learnability, often coexist with exceptions, raising the question of whether and why irregularities survive. We offer a complex system perspective on this issue, focusing on the irregular past tense forms in English. Two separate processes affect the overall regularity: new verbs constantly entering the vocabulary in the regular form at low frequency, and transitions in both directions (from irregular to regular and vice-versa) occurring in a narrow frequency range. The introduction of new verbs leads to an increase in regular types, that, entering at low frequencies, have a small impact on the perceived irregularity in terms of tokens. The frequency of usage acts as a control parameter, the majority of verbs types being fully-regular(irregular) at low(high) frequencies, with no evidence of irregularity facing extinction. Very few verbs types in an intermediate frequency region exhibit both regular and irregular forms at the same time, suggesting that the coexistence is unstable. The observed pattern of usage showing an abrupt change in response to small variations of the control parameter only appears in agent-based models provided that the word state is non-binary. By introducing this key ingredient, high-frequency irregular past-tense can survive the tendency to regularize over time, as observed in natural languages.
Keywords: rules and exceptions, complex systems, English past-tense, agent-based modeling
Published online: 15 January 2021
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