The Past Tense – Then and Now

English is evolving in numerous ways on a daily basis, be it through new words put in use (as cited here last week), new expressions, or a change in the way we use words already in use. The past tense is an excellent point of reference for this phenomenon. I was reminded of this when I came across a neat little article by Denise Gellene at the L.A. Times titled “How English Adds the -ed“. Her focus is on the changes of regular verbs into irregular verbs over the course of time, quoting a study led by an evolutionary theorist at Harvard (full article here, subscription required) that assigns “half lives” to verbs that are similar to those assigned to genes in the study of biological evolution. Interestingly, the verb next on the list for officially changing is “wed”.

This implies, for me, that changes language are not as “random” and unpredictable as commonly believed. If scientists (who certainly know a great deal more on the matter than I do) can map out approximate times when a verb will cease to be used in its current form (according to the article, “be” and “have” will take the longest to change…in about 38,800 years), then they can breakdown many other aspects of the development of language over the course of short- and long-term history. Has anyone else come across other relaible information on this subject? Surely the scientific progression of slang or even the number of words used per sentence has been analyzed at some point.