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The English Language Managed to 'Organise' Itself Out of Chaos For Centuries

The natural selection of words.

DAVID NIELD
17 MAR 2017
 

Researchers have found that the English language has effectively organised itself for several hundred years, even without any kind of oversight or control from an official body.

Some languages, like Italian and French, are actually controlled by national academies, but a study of texts stretching back almost a thousand years has discovered that English managed to self-organise without this kind of help – even before the arrival of printers and dictionaries.

 

Linguist Mark Aronoff from Stony Brook University says the findings show a kind of 'natural selection' at work, with preferred spellings being decided on by the consensus of English writers over time.

"We show in this article that the [English] system became gradually more consistent over a period of several hundred years," says Aronoff, "starting before the advent of printers, orthoepists, or dictionary makers."

This may have happened "through the simple interaction of the members of the community of spellers, a sort of self-organising social network", he adds.

Aronoff and fellow researcher Kristian Berg from the University of Oldenburg in Germany looked at a range of suffixes in texts dating back to Old English, a period that ended around 1150 AD.

Those suffixes included "ous" (as in hazardous), "ic" (as in allergic), "al" (as in final), and "y" (as in funny).

By analysing modern-day spellings of these words and tracking their usage through the ages, the researchers found that one agreed-upon spelling won out over time, eventually leading to consistency in how the words were written.

 

The pair call this "the emergence of culture out of anarchy".

While there's no doubt that printing, increased paperwork, and the rise of schools all helped play a part in the standardisation of English spellings, some kind of order was naturally being found before then, the researchers suggest.

And they found other patterns too, such as the way every word ending in "ous", like nervous or hazardous, is an adjective. When words carry a similar 'end sound' but aren't adjectives, a different spelling is used, such as in genius or menace.

"English spelling has arrived at a system despite the lack of any overt guidance," the pair explain.

Today, English spelling is set by the country you're in and local editorial and linguistic practice, but there's still no official body choosing which words can be used and which can't – that's why dictionaries regularly add new words based on the language people are using.

Many have tried to set up some kind of order – including Jonathan Swift – but it turns out that English has always done just fine on its own.

And if you're interested in the evolution of language over time, there's no better case study than English: marauding foreign invaders, royal decrees, William Shakespeare, and overseas trading patterns have all contributed in their own ways to make it the rich and varied language it is.

The study has been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of Language, but is already available to read online.

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