On the Natural Selection of Words

Faye Flam at Bloomberg:

2000x-1 (1)Which would you choose, sneaked or snuck? My first instinct when faced with this question was to worry about which was correct. While sneaked sounds vaguely more grammatically correct, snuck sounds natural.

The person who posed the question to me wasn’t a grammarian but a computational biologist named Joshua Plotkin. And he wasn’t concerned with right or wrong. To him, this was a nice example of language evolution in action — and if he’s right in a recent analysis, that process is like biological evolution in ways people hadn’t previously recognized.

Languages, like living things, were not designed, and yet in both cases, through their evolution, structure, utility and beauty emerge. In the 1860s, soon after Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was published, linguist August Schleicher defended it by pointing to the already known evolution of language.

“Analogies between language change and evolution literally go back to Darwin, though originally in the opposite direction — Darwin invoked language change to explain biological evolution,” Harvard linguistics and psychology professor Stephen Pinker told me, commenting on the study by email. “So this paper is a debt repaid.”

This kind of analysis is likely to give grammatical purists food for thought, and may even help explain why today’s watered-down use of the word “awesome” refuses to die.

More here.