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Languages change fast. What drives this change? Within the last 8000 years – around 400 generations of speakers – nearly all of the languages we find in Europe today diverged from a common source. Within the last 1000 years, Old English has evolved into Modern English, to the point where much of Old English is now unintelligible to the untrained eye. In Beowulf, written somewhere between 700 and 1000CE, some words have changed but others have remained unaltered, For example, “him se yldesta andswarode, werodes wísa wordhord onléac”, meaning “the eldest answered him, the crew's captain, he unlocked his word-hoard”, demonstrates that the words “answered”, “unlocked”, and “word-hoard” are similar, but “captain” (wísa) is radically different.

In a new paper, Padraic Monaghan (Professor of English Linguistics, UvA) and Seán Roberts unlock the forces driving language change. They analyse which words in the English language have changed, and which have stayed the same, testing what it is about these words and the way they have been used that results in change.

Consistent with previous studies of vocabulary change, they found that how often a word is used affects whether it changes or stays the same. Words that are very frequently used are less likely to change. If we are regularly using a word then we are not likely to forgot it, and changing it is going to cause confusion with the people you’re trying to talk to. But, by searching a larger hoard of words than previous studies, Monaghan and Roberts found that words that are used only very rarely are also less likely to change than those which have mid-range frequency. This is because you are more likely to hear a word in another language and incorporate it into your own language, if we come across it at least occasionally.

Another important property of words that determines whether words change is when the word is learned during a person’s lifetime. If the word is acquired early in life it is less likely to change than if it is learned later in life. This suggests that when learning language as a child, the vocabulary becomes fixed in our minds, but later, once we have mastered the language then we are more free to experiment and innovate.

Finally, the length of a word was also found to relate to change: A longer word is more likely to change than a shorter word.  This is because a shorter word is easier to remember than a longer word, and so more likely to be preserved in our mind.

The results of these studies show that the way in which our mind stores and processes language has a profound effect on the evolution of language. In addition to being a source of literature and a historical record of language, the word hoard that we find in archives of Old English – such as the epic poem Beowulf – allow us to uncover the living processes that drive language change that are shaping the way we speak today. The challenge for linguists is now to extend these studies to other languages and parts of the world.

Link to paper and open-access version: