Grammar prescriptivists — who believe rules should be followed; “descriptivists” believe correct grammar is whatever works — love to appeal to logic. If “he could care less,” then he could care less — you have to say “he couldn’t”! It’s the rock we cling to against the rising tide of literally-means-figuratively-now. Well, it may be time to loosen that grip, because the evolutionary forces of language extremely do not care.
A new study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that randomness is a more powerful component of English’s evolution than previously thought. (The findings can’t necessarily be extrapolated to other languages – as one of the researchers told The Guardian, “English is weird.”)
For a long time, linguists have thought about language as subject to evolutionary selection, much like species. When a language has more than one way to say something, or variable spellings, the “fittest” one wins, with speakers, en masse, selecting for ease, speed, and regularity. But the new research shows that those streamlining forces don’t always seem to win.
By tracking past-tense spellings of 36 verbs — those found to have at least two spellings, like quit/quitted and spilt/spilled — researchers could see a slice of how English, from 1810 to the present, evolved. And they saw that it made no sense. Six of the 36 verbs had one form being actively selected for. And for four of those six, the chosen past-tense form is the irregular one, which in grammatical terms is decidedly unfit.
Researchers expected selective pressures to steer language toward regularity, making the language easier to remember (and more logical!). But no, they saw “Dove” instead of “dived,” at least in American English; “woke” instead of “waked.” There may be other logical factors driving these evolutions — the researchers speculate, for example, that “dove” is favoured because it lines up with the similar-sounding, and similarly patterned, “drove.”
The logic is in there, if deeply. Can anyone say the same for where “literally” is going?
No, really. It would make me feel a lot better to know.
Resistance to changes in grammar is futile, say researchers [The Guardian]