The Reduction Effect

Last week I talked about how high-frequency words and phrases resist analogical change. This entrenchment happens because analogical change is driven by forgetting, and it’s harder to forget something that you’ve said a lot. In this post I want to talk about a different effect of frequency, the reduction effect, where high-frequency words and phrases get shortened and simplified.

We see reduction in all the words and phrases we say most often. “How are you?” becomes “Hiya” and then “Hi.” “I don’t know” becomes “I dunno” and then something I can’t even write, a single “uh” vowel with a low-high-low tone pattern. “I am going to let you” becomes “I’m gonna let you,” and then, in the speech of Kanye West and Eminem, “amaletchoo.”

A lot of people find these frequency effects confusing. How can high frequency words and phrases be simultaneously the first to change and the last to change? What makes this possible is that they are two different kinds of change. Entrenchment is about forgetting, and the more we do things, the more we remember how to do them. Reduction is about ease, and the more we do things the easier they become.

Times Square Subway Station

Photo: Brian D. Luster / Flickr.

This is like any habit. Because I take the subway to Times Square so frequently, I not only never forget the way, but I do all kinds of things to make it faster and easier. I know where to stand on the platform, where to sit on the train, and when to stand up, so that I get off right by the most convenient staircase.

More importantly, I have a low-level “muscle memory” of the movements involved in the trip. Every time, I climb the stairs the same way, sit down the same way, stand up the same way. It’s the same with unlocking my apartment door or cooking a steak. My movements are all smaller and smoother. I can do a lot of it without thinking.

As with entrenchment, I learned about the Reduction Effect in class with Joan Bybee. In one of her early papers, published in 1976 under the name Joan B. Hooper, she credits Hugo Schuchardt with discovering the relationship. In 1885 (German PDF p. 28 | English translation p. 56), Schuchardt wrote, “What is more natural than making things easier whenever frequency provides the strongest impulse for this and wherever the danger of misunderstanding is least?”

I know I said I’d talk about why it’s not so surprising that we get “snuck.” I’m almost there; I wanted to get this relatively straightforward stuff out of the way first.

Forgetting the infrequent things

I’m pleased that so many people found my last post on forgetting and language change interesting. Ariel Cohen-Goldberg in particular noted this about forgetting:

Cohen-Goldberg is absolutely right, and this stems from forgetting. The more frequently we do something, the more likely we are to do it the same way, without forgetting how. I never forget which train to take to get to Times Square, which way to turn the key in my apartment door, or which spices to use when cooking a steak, because I do all these things on a regular basis.

It is the same with language: I say “I had a pen in my pocket,” and never “I haved.” I always say “there were three children,” and never “three childs.” I say “was he there yesterday?” and never “did he be there yesterday?” This is what Joan Bybee and Sandy Thompson (2000) called the “conserving effect” of frequency, and Ron Langacker (1987) called “entrenchment.”

I learned about entrenchment from Joan Bybee in a course on frequency effects. She discusses it in more detail in her 1995 paper on regular morphology. In her 1985 book, she credits Witold Mańczak (1980), but Mark Aronoff suggests that it may go back to Zipf (1949). I went to check Zipf’s book; someone has it out of the library, but I put in a request for it.

This course in frequency effects actually changed my life. My term paper for the course, on the shift from ne alone to ne … pas in French, provided a good starting point for my dissertation. In section 7.3.2 of my dissertation I look at the entrenchment of high-frequency phrases like je ne sais “I don’t know,” je ne peux “I can’t,” and je n’ose “I daren’t.”

The study of entrenchment has also brought us the Google Ngram Viewer, a tool that linguists feel decidedly ambivalent about. Earlier this month, Elizabeth Weingarten profiled the Ngram Viewer in Slate, particularly its founders, mathematician Erez Lieberman Aiden and biologist Jean-Baptiste Michel.

And that was the question that set Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, another Viewer founding father and co-founder of the Culturomics field, on the path to create such a tool in the first place. Back in 2007, Aiden, Michel, and a crew of undergraduate students decided to test the word evolution hypothesis by tracking irregular verbs over the past 1,000 years. They found 177 that were traceable (for instance, go and went, run and ran), plotted them manually, and discovered that the verbs did undergo a kind of evolutionary process. “The less frequent the verb, the more rapidly it becomes irregular,” Aiden explains. “Our work became this demo of how evolution by natural selection might work in a cultural study.”

In their paper, which came out while I was examining entrenchment in my corpus, Lieberman and his colleagues cited Bybee’s work on entrenchment, but somehow Bybee didn’t make it into Weingarten’s article, just as Mańczak didn’t make it into Lieberman et al.’s paper (or my dissertation), and Zipf (if he did write about it) didn’t make it into Bybee’s book. The main thing: it came from linguists.

Entrenchment is a very important effect, but many people forget to take it into account in their studies. At the 2008 conference of the American Association for Corpus Linguistics I was That Annoying Guy who asked everyone “If you take out this handful of high-frequency items, is there any evidence in your study that the change is still happening?” The other presenters were surprisingly tolerant of these questions.

You may be familiar with another effect of frequency, what Bybee and Thompson call the “reduction effect.” I’ll talk about that in a future post. And I’ll definitely get around to analogy as well. In the meantime, don’t forget to forget your low-frequency verbs!