Tag Archives: Aiden

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.