How Some Words Get Forgetted


Hey smart people, Joe here. In your whole life, how many books have you
readed? Sorry, I mean read.
But not red, like the color. Read, like the past tense of reeead. I just misspeaked! Mispoke.
This… reminds me of a poem: The verbs in English are a fright.How can
we learn to read and write?Today we write, but first we wrote;We bite our tongues, but
never bote.This tale I tell; this tale I told;I smell the flowers, but never smold.If I still
do as once I did,Then do cows moo, as they once mid? That was penned by linguist Richard Lederer.
And it’s proof that English is…weird. We can blame all this confusion on irregular
verbs. Most verbs in English are “regular”. We
make their past tense by adding a letter or two on the end. They’re the difference between
what happens now and what happened. But irregular verbs are… well, not regular. Like the difference
between what is and what was. It’s cute when kids say “I breaked my
toy.” But why do the rest of us say “broke”? Because that’s just what everyone else says,
right? We say it how it’s always been said. But if we were thinking scientifically, we’d
ask “How did it get this way?” And I don’t know about you, but I prefer
to think scientifically. A biologist studies how things are by looking
at how they used to be. We find fossils. But how does one go about finding a fossil… of
language? Well luckily, people tend to write language
down. James Joyce’s Ulysses contains 265,222 words
I totally counted, and didn’t just google that. Of those words the word “time” is the
74th most frequent, used 376 times. The word “the” is the most frequently
used: 14,877 times. We know that thanks to another type of book: a “concordance”,
an index of words that lists every instance of every word in a written work. There’s concordances for Thoreau’s Walden.
He enjoyed the woods more than the forest. The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, where we find
the raven more than Eldorado. The writings of Descartes (in the original
French), medieval recipes, even for the Bible. A linguist named George Kingsley Zipf looked
at these ranked lists of written language and noticed something funny: Not all words
are created equal. Some get used a lot, while most almost never get used. Like how we say
“the” all the time, but almost never say “hallux” –the anatomical name for your
big toe. When it comes to a trait like height, most
people are pretty close to average, while the very tallest people? Are only maybe three
times taller than the shortest. We don’t vary very much. Height is… normal, it’s
literally a “normal distribution.” But Zipf realized words aren’t normal. Only
a few words are very common, while most words are very un-common.  For instance, in Ulysses,
there are a thousand words used more than 26 times, a hundred words used more than 265
times, but only ten words used more than 2,653 times. Another way to say this: the 10th most
frequently used word is ten times more common than the 100th most used.
This peculiar trend is called Zipf’s Law. What the… I’m Tacky! It looks like you’re talking
about Zipf’s Law. Did you know Vsauce already did a video about that? Yeah, it’s a great video… it’s actually
what got me thinking about this! But I’m gonna tell them more than just about Zipf’s
Law. I want to… Would you like me to help you click over to
that video… No! I want you to watch THIS video. But if
you DID watch Michael’s video on Vsauce, perhaps by clicking a link in the description–LATER–you’d
learn that Zipf’s Law applies to tons of stuff: Like wealth, the population of cities,
how long audiences clap, web traffic, the size of holes in Swiss cheese, and–especially–language. Wherever people look, newspapers, other languages,
even randomly generated words, pretty much everything in language obeys Zipf’s Law…
well, everything except irregular verbs. The 12 most common verbs in the English language
are be, have, do, say, get, make, go, know, take, see, come, and think. All irregular.
But irregulars are a tiny fraction of all verbs. English only has around 200 irregular
verbs, a mere 3 percent of total verbs. Instead of having a few commonly used irregular
verbs, and lots of rare ones, like Zipf’s Law predicts, almost all irregular verbs are
common, and almost none are rare. Irregular verbs… are a Zipf exception. Where do irregular verbs come from?
They’re the oldest ones we have. Around four to six thousand years ago, people stretching
from Europe to Western Asia spoke an ancient language known as Proto-Indo-European. A staggering
number of modern languages descend from this. In PIE, the meaning and tense of words could
be changed through a system where vowel sounds were swapped. This system, the ablaut, can
still be heard today in irregular verbs: Dig, dug. Sing, sang, sung. At the time, it was just one of many competing
systems for changing verbs. But a bit later, people speaking Proto-Germanic, a dialect
descended from PIE, began adding verbs to the language that didn’t fit these old patterns,
so they invented a new way of signifying the past tense by simply adding “-t” or “-ed”
sounds to the end. Back then, these new “regular” verbs were actually the exception. As English grew from this Proto-Germanic language,
newly added words became automatically regular, they followed this new rule. And many older
verbs began to switch from the old way to the new. Like how long ago, the knight slew
the dragon, but Beyoncé slayed at her last show. By the time the Old English story of Beowulf
was written, three out of every four verbs had been “regularized.” There /were/ a
handful of verbs that moved in the other direction, going from regular to irregular, but for every
havED or makED that was had or made, there are dozens of verbs like holp that got helped
along. Regular was no longer the exception, it was the rule. So why did some irregular verbs go extinct,
while others have survived? We all know that language evolves, similar to how living things
do, changing slightly over time. Could language also undergo some kind of natural selection,
is there something about a word that decides whether it’s strong enough to live on? We can test this! We just need a bigger data
set than one book. Using ancient grammar textbooks along with
databases of millions of written words, researchers tracked the evolution of 177 verbs that were
irregular at the time Beowulf was written. By the time Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales,
32 of these had become regular. By the time we hit modern English, 79 had regularized.
The trait that predicted whether or not a verb would become regular was how often we
use it. The most frequently used verbs tend to stay
irregular. The most rarely used become regular. Surprisingly, there was a sort of hidden Zipfian
pattern there after all. If a verb is used 100 times less frequently, it will regularize
10 times as fast. If they’re used 10,000 times less frequently, they’ll regularize
100 times as fast. Researchers were able to estimate the likely
lifespan of irregular verbs. A word like “stink”, that’s used once every 10,000-100,000 words,
has a 50% chance of regularizing within 700 years. Drink, a more common word, will take
more like 5,000 years. We can find words today in the process of going extinct. Do you tend
to say dived or dove? Now is your last chance to be newly wed. Pretty soon, you might be
newly wedded. “Wed” is the irregular verb we think will most likely disappear next. This seems to be natural selection for language.
Usage frequency affects a word’s survival, and this makes sense. Regular verbs follow
a rule. When we encounter a word we don’t know, we can still figure out its past tense,
without memorizing each and every one. Irregular verbs on the other hand, have to be memorized.
If we don’t use them, we lose them. As they’re slowly forgotten, the “regular” rule is
used in their place. In 1980, after thirty years of work, IBM was
able to digitize the complete works of Thomas Aquinas. Today, this is something that you
or anyone who knows how to code, can do in a few minutes, with a few keystrokes. Concordances,
the indexes of language that inspired Zipf and others to ask these questions, no one
really writes those anymore. Except… maybe they do. It’s called “Google”. A search
engine is basically a list of words and phrases, from around the web, and the pages where they
appear. Concordances were just analog Google. The Google Books project now contains 25 million
scanned books stretching back more than 500 years. No matter how many books you read,
you could never read every book, or even a fraction of them, in a lifetime. If you tried
to read just the English-language books from the year 2000 in this collection, at a reasonable
pace, without stopping, it would take you 80 years. But what could we learn if we made computers
read for us? The Google Ngram Viewer is a search tool we can use to study how human
culture has changed over the centuries. It plots the frequency of strings of one or more
words, by year, found in those millions of digitized books. We can see when people stopped talking about
the Great War, and started calling it World War I instead.
“Evolution” was on the decline until “DNA” came along.
Einstein took physics to the next level. People like pizza more than hamburgers, but
less than ice cream. What’s the most interesting one you can
find? Of course, as much data as we can pull from
millions of digitized books, we haven’t read them. A computer has. And while it gives
us access to an immense amount of data, it doesn’t tell us perhaps the most important
part: The story. Stay curious. If you thought that Ngram was pretty cool … Sarah over at Art Assignment
used it to look at how and different artists got famous… or not. Link description to
that one too.

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3 thoughts on “How Some Words Get Forgetted”

  1. It's Okay To Be Smart says:

    Share your favorite irregular verbs and Google Ngram searches below!

    If you're not already subscribed, hopefully this earned your subscription. And click that bell icon so you get notified when we have a new video!

  2. mahmoody says:

    you look like a chad michael vsauce

  3. rottis says:

    How some words get forgetted/get forgot?

  4. Mạnh Trần says:

    Sneaked or snuck

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