Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios Pro Rata

Dive into the world of dealmakers across VC, PE and M&A with Axios Pro Rata. Delivered daily to your inbox by Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Nashville news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Nashville newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Columbus news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Columbus newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Dallas news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Dallas newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Austin news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Austin newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Atlanta news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Atlanta newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Philadelphia news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Philadelphia newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Chicago news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Chicago newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top DC news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios DC newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Since Darwin's day, the principles of evolution have been used to try to explain how and why language changes. In a new study, researchers look at changes within the English language over short periods of time and find random chance plays a larger role than previously thought in quickly altering aspects of language.

What's new: Techniques used by biologists to study genetic changes have been honed, and linguists can now use them to analyze the large amounts of digitized texts. Understanding what causes individual words, sounds and syntax to change within a single language could provide clues about how new languages arise. And, advances in linguistic understanding have led to better speech recognition, predictive text, artificial intelligence and related algorithms.

Bottom line: We are beginning to get a detailed picture of the history of language, much like we have for the history of species.

"This is a really interesting piece of work that nicely combines large-scale databases with quantitative modeling. These approaches are becoming more common in linguistics, helping to revitalize the field," says Simon Greenhill from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who was not involved in the research but recently analyzed 81 Austronesian languages (from islands in Southeast Asia and the Pacific) and found their grammar changed faster than their lexicon.

How evolution works: Selection is when one form of a word is preferred over another — because it sounds better, is popular or more effective, or is easier to say or remember — and therefore perpetuated, whereas drift or neutral evolution is when a version of a word is randomly copied. It just sort of happens.

What they did: Physicist-turned-biologist Mitchell Newberry and linguist Christopher Ahern along with their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania ran their statistical models, which borrow from techniques in population genetics, on databases of digitized texts containing more than 400 million words and spanning the 12th to 21st centuries. They tested the models on three known grammatical changes in the English language:

  1. The use of -ed to create past-tense verbs. They found drift accounted for changes in rare verbs that make them more prone to being replaced. And, the preferred form of just six of the 36 verbs they studied arose via selection. Some were irregular, which linguists have hypothesized may be because those forms pleasingly rhyme with other words being used frequently at the time. In the study, the rise of the irregular verb quit was found to coincide with more use of the words hit, split and slit, supporting the hypothesis.
  2. The rise of do as a verb. Random drift seems to have initially brought do into questions beginning in the 1500s and then natural selection took over as do made its way into other contexts like when Say not that! became Don't say that! for "reasons of grammatical consistency or cognitive ease," they wrote.
  3. How negative sentences were formed. In Middle English, the phrase was I not say, then it changed to I not say not, then by Shakespeare's time it was, I say not and, finally, I don't say. This cycle of moving no around to wherever it gives us the most emphasis was known to happen across many languages due to natural selection and the test basically acted as the control for their model.
"One of the crucial things we've added is that at certain time scales — year by year counts as opposed to century by century — the picture is really different. If you look at the data in a fine grain way, you will discover new things," says Ahern.

Yes, but: Some linguists contacted by Axios were skeptical the study's findings were novel and said historical data is incomplete. "The amount of material we have varies a lot from century to century, and that affects the conclusions that can be drawn from the dataset," says Claire Bowern, a linguist at Yale University who was not involved in the study. She also points out that linguists have looked at the role of random drift in language change before.

The response: Ahern says that among linguists, "the level of detail at which these changes are 'well known' is a little bit overstated." And, he says the point is he and his colleagues came up with a way to test long-standing hypotheses for the first time. "We're building in language the intellectual infrastructure that we built in genetics in the 60s," Newberry says.

What's next: Determining whether the patterns occur in other languages and extending and nuancing the models by incorporating other work in linguistics, Greenhill says.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Prosecutors charge parents of Michigan school shooting suspect

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The parents of a 15-year-old accused of killing four students and wounding seven other people at a Michigan high school have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

The latest: Lawyers for James and Jennifer Crumbley told the Detroit News they are "returning to the area to be arraigned," after law enforcement officials announced a search for the Crumbleys had been initiated.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
7 hours ago - World

Putin to demand legal guarantee against NATO expansion in call with Biden

Biden and Putin meeting in Geneva in June. Photo: Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not expand east — including to Ukraine — and plans to raise the issue in an upcoming phone call with President Biden, according to the Kremlin.

Why it matters: Russia has massed more than 94,000 troops on the border with Ukraine and could be preparing for a large-scale invasion at the end of January, Ukraine's defense minister said Friday.