G.K. Zipf and the Fossil Hunters – Reading Response

This chapter out of the book Uncharted written by Aiden and Michel focuses on the appearance of certain words in the English language. More specifically, it focuses on irregular verbs. by analyzing the appearance of the irregular and “regular” versions of the same verb, the phasing out of the irregular verb form can be predicted mathematically based solely on the frequency of the verb’s use in English language. The  clear example that is presented is the word throve vs. thrived. Clearly we mostly use the word “thrived” instead of “throve” but this isn’t the case when we look that the comparison between the words “drove” and “drived.” According to Aiden and Michel, the only difference between these two verbs which both have been irregular at some point is the fact that “drove” was used much more often than “throve.” As Aiden and Michel state on page 44,

“…once one took frequency into account,
the process of regularization was mathematically indistinguishable
from the decay of a radioactive atom. Moreover, if we knew
the frequency of an irregular verb, we could use a formula to compute its half-life.”


For the most part, Zipf, Aiden and Michel used literary resources to make their predictions on verb frequency. They state that the sole factor that influences the “regularization” of irregular verbs is the frequency of the verb in question in literature. Although their prediction may be correct to a certain extent, they disregarded the effect of social influences from their main argument. On the second page of the anecdote Burn, baby, burnt,  it states,

“A few days later, he saw another distressing headline, this one in the Los Angeles Times: “Kobe Bryant Says He Learned a Lot from Phil Jackson.” The student knew nothing about Phil Jackson, but was still shocked that Kobe had learned from Phil. If anything, he should have learnt.”

Although the pure analysis of the frequency of irregular verbs such as “learnt” may be a good determinant of the future of the regularization of that particular verb, it does not take into account any social factors or any other determinants that affect the frequency of the verb. It may be that the regularization of the verb starts with the simple news headline that used the regularized version of the verb which inadvertently sparked it’s popularity within the general public and as a result it eventually sets off the cycle for the word to make its way into formal literature. These social effects may or may not speed up or slow down the process of the regularization of certain words; for example, if kids are being taught generation after generation that the correct past tense for “drive” is “drove” and not “drived,” then these social pressures may affect the eventual outcome of the word, regardless of frequency. The significance of social factors on the regularization of irregular verbs can only be determined through further careful analysis.

2 thoughts on “G.K. Zipf and the Fossil Hunters – Reading Response”

  1. This is sort of side-tracking, but I think you are right. Social factors DO make a huge impact on language in general. If you think about all of the made-up/coined words that have caught on in recent years like yolo, swag, hashtag, etc. (as annoying as their overuse might be), then you can see that they all originated 100% through some social drive. These changes occur much more quickly, unlike the formula from the passage which occurs over generations. If this is the case, do you think the claims Aiden and Michael have made are important to us? Why should we care about their claims, or should we?

  2. The claims that Aiden and Michel made are important; they give us an outline as far as how we can analyze the regularization of verbs. However, their research has been based on formal literature in the past. With the introduction of social mediums such as Facebook and Twitter, it is important to note new trends and take into account the influence of social factors into future analyses; it may be that the regularization of verbs is accelerated due to the increase of informal written content or it may be that famous people such as celebrities start using these regularized verbs and start spreading them around quicker than ever before. Based on only the frequency and appearance of these new verbs, only time and further analysis can tell if the same formulas and the same principles apply to a new age of digital mediums.

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