Thursday, December 26, 2013

26 December 2013

Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel [Kris Snibbe]

from Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel's Uncharted: Big Data As a Lens on Human Culture:

As we examined the transformation of irregular verbs into regular verbs, we found that, 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. This was remarkable, because for radioactive atoms, you have to measure the half-life experimentally; it's usually impossible to compute. In this respect, the mathematics of radioactivity applied even more neatly to irregular verbs than to radioactive atoms.

The formula was simple and beautiful: The half-life of a verb scales as the square root of its frequency. An irregular verb that is one hundred times less frequent will regularize ten times as fast.

For instance, verbs whose frequencies fall between one in one hundred and one in one thousand — verbs like drink or speak — have a half-life of roughly 5,400 years. This is comparable to the half-life of carbon-14 (5,715 years), the isotope that is most famously used in dating ancient relics.

The Once and Future Past

Once you've calculated the half-life of irregular verbs, it's possible to make predictions about their future. Based on the above analysis, we predicted that by the time one verb from the set begin, break, bring, buy, choose, draw, drink, drive, eat, fall regularizes, five verbs from the set bid, dive, heave, shear, shed, slay, slit, sow, sting, stink will have already regularized. And that if current trends hold up, only 83 of our 177 irregular verbs will still be irregular in the year 2500.

We were so excited about this that we summed our predictions up as a short story:

He was a well-breeded man from the twenty-sixth century, so it really stinged when they said his grammar stunk. "Stinked," the time-traveler corrected.

If you're planning on doing some time travel anytime soon, you'd do well to memorize this instructive tale.

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