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Christine F. Cuskley
Claudio Castellano
Francesca Colaiori
Francesca Tria
Martina Pugliese
Prof. Vittorio Loreto PhD




Public Library of Science


Internal and External Dynamics in Language: Evidence from Verb Regularity in a Historical Corpus of English


Human languages are rule governed, but almost invariably these rules have exceptions in the form of irregularities. Since rules in language are efficient and productive, the persistence of irregularity is an anomaly. How does irregularity linger in the face of internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) pressures to conform to a rule? Here we address this problem by taking a detailed look at simple past tense verbs in the Corpus of Historical American English. The data show that the language is open, with many new verbs entering. At the same time, existing verbs might tend to regularize or irregularize as a consequence of internal dynamics, but overall, the amount of irregularity sustained by the language stays roughly constant over time. Despite continuous vocabulary growth, and presumably, an attendant increase in expressive power, there is no corresponding growth in irregularity. We analyze the set of irregulars, showing they may adhere to a set of minority rules, allowing for increased stability of irregularity over time. These findings contribute to the debate on how language systems become rule governed, and how and why they sustain exceptions to rules, providing insight into the interplay between the emergence and maintenance of rules and exceptions in language.