Study Reveals the English Language Organized Itself

A paper published in the journal Language uses an examination of English spelling to show that even without regulation the language evolved to be orderly

Article ID: 671026

Released: 10-Mar-2017 1:05 PM EST

Source Newsroom: Stony Brook University

  • Mark Aronoff, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Linguistics

Newswise — Stony Brook, NY – March 10, 2017 – A Stony Brook University-led study of the history and spelling of English suffixes demonstrates that the spelling of English words is more orderly and self-organized that linguistics have previously thought. The finding, details of which are published in the journal Language, is an indication that the self-organization of English occurred even though the language has never been regulated or governed through the centuries.

Unlike France and Italy, and other countries where national academies oversee the written language, no English-speaking country has a language academy to organize and regulate the language. Yet, in the paper, titled “Self-Organization in the Spelling of English Suffixes: The Emergence of Culture out of Anarchy,” the research examines previously unnoticed systemic aspects of English spelling and explains how the system emerged on its own. Lead investigator Mark Aronoff, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Stony Brook University, and Kristian Berg of the University of Oldenburg, specifically investigated the spelling of four derivational suffixes and showed the spelling over time is quite consistent – even considering the sounds of the suffixes, like many English words, can be spelled in various ways.

The suffixes include: --ous, found in words such as hazardous and nervous; --ic, found in words like allergic; --al, such as in the word final; and –y, as in funny.

“English spelling was well on its way to its modern incarnation, and no single group seems to have played a notable role in the movement of English spelling toward greater consistency,” says Professor Aronoff. “We show in this article that the system became gradually more consistent over a period of several hundred years, starting before the advent of printers, orthoepists, or dictionary makers, presumably through the simple interaction of the members of the community of spellers, a sort of self-organizing social network,” he summarized.

For each of the suffixes, the authors analyzed a large sample of written English documents dating back close to one thousand years. For every word that follows a certain modern spelling with the suffix the authors looked at each instance in their sample and kept track of how the world was spelled. They found a number of spellings for each suffix over time. However, for each suffix one form of spelling eventually won out over another and followed a pattern that led to consistency in spelling.

As a follow-up to the research detailed in the paper, the linguists are now testing their findings on fluent readers of English to see if they use the regularities found and to see if those learning English can learn to read more quickly and fluently with consistent spellings.

The research for the paper was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and completed while Kristian Berg was a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University.

About Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University is going beyond the expectations of what today’s public universities can accomplish. Since its founding in 1957, this young university has grown to become one of only four University Center campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system with more than 25,700 students, 2,500 faculty members, and 20 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Our faculty have earned numerous prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation, Abel Prize and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The University offers students an elite education with an outstanding return on investment: U.S.News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 40 public universities in the nation. Its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. As part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University joins a prestigious group of universities that have a role in running federal R&D labs. Stony Brook University is a driving force in the region’s economy, generating nearly 60,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of $4.65 billion. Our state, country and world demand ambitious ideas, imaginative solutions and exceptional leadership to forge a better future for all. The students, alumni, researchers and faculty of Stony Brook University are prepared to meet this challenge.


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