Evolution of Language
Since humans first began communicating with words, language has constantly evolved. Over the centuries, frequently used words have remained the same, while infrequently used words have either died out or mutated to fit society’s needs. Old texts such as The Canterbury Tales serve as a linguistic fossil record of Old English vocabulary, before new words overpowered the older forms and drove them to extinction.
Today, most regular English verbs take the suffix ‘-ed’ in their past tense forms, such as “walked” or “smiled.” However, not all verbs are created equal. A 2007 Harvard study found that words used more frequently in everyday language evolve slower than infrequently used words.
As time passed, irregular verbs dwindled. New regular verbs came into usage (‘Googled’ and ‘emailed’), crowding out the irregular verbs and pressuring them to conform.
Today, irregular verbs make up only about 3% of English verbs, but they are powerful nonetheless. According to the same Harvard study, the ten most commonly used English verbs—be, have, do, go say, can, will, see, take and get—are all irregular.
However, some irregular forms are still sticking around—for now. Many people see the distinction between verbs like “kneeled” and “knelt” as a question of British versus American usage. This is partly because the British tend to hold on to the irregular form more than Americans, as with “dreamed” versus “dreamt.” Today’s irregular verbs will probably go the way of the rest, but for now either form is correct.
Distinction of New Language
But how are new words, regular verbs or not, added to the dictionary? The editors at Merriam-Webster say that the answer is simple: it’s all about usage. The process of a word being added to the dictionary depends on this standardized system:
- Each day, editors devote a couple of hours to reading a cross section of recent published material (books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications) in an activity called “reading and marking.”
- They search these publications for new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and inflected forms.
- Editors enter these marked passages into a computer system and store them as “citations.”
- Merriam-Webster’s citation files, begun in the 1880s, now contain 15.7 million examples of words used in context from all corners of the English vocabulary.
- Then definers look through the files to determine if a word has a substantial number of citations from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. If a word passes this test, it is admitted to the dictionary.
Fogarty, Mignon. Quick and Dirty Tips: “Kneeled” vs. “Knelt.”
Merriam-Webster.com. How does a word get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary?
Swaminathan, Nikhil. Use It or Lose It: Why Language Changes over Time.
About the Author
Elle Carnley is a writing major and Spanish minor at Texas Christian University. She can’t get enough of words and wishes she had Google Glass just so she could read while walking all day.