Times Square Subway Station

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.

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!

Third grade class working hard on their art history assignment. Photo: Bliss Chan / Flickr.

The power of forgetfulness

Emily Brewster remarked the other day on the emergence and resurgence of irregular verb forms like “snuck,” “dreamt” and “awoke.” Stan Carey calls these forms unusual, and they are less common than innovative regular forms, but they are not surprising if you know the mechanisms underlying morphological change, in particular the role of forgetting and how we use analogy to overcome it.

For years, many linguists assumed that all change happened in the imperfect transmission of language from parents to children, because they heard small children produce over-regularized forms like “he keeped running.” In 1982 Joan Bybee and Dan Slobin published “Rules and schemas in the development and use of the English past tense,” but I prefer the title of an earlier version they presented to the ICHL, “Why small children cannot change language on their own.”

Bybee and Slobin asked English-speaking preschoolers, third graders (ages 8-10) and adults to produce past tense forms under time pressure. They found that the preschoolers almost always made errors like “blowed” instead of “blew,” but the third graders and adults hardly ever did. On the other hand, the third graders and adults did create novel irregular forms like “glew” as the past tense of “glow” and “snoze” as the past tense of “snooze.” They concluded that changes like the rise of “snuck” can only be driven by adults and older children.

What was this condition of language change that Slobin recreated in the laboratory? Forgetting. We forget all kinds of things. We forget where we left our keys, we forget where our second cousin is going to college, we forget how to hammer a nail or how to sing “Cielito Lindo.” It shouldn’t surprise us that once in a while we forget the past tense of “dive,” or the plural of “rhinoceros.” We’ve all been there.

So what do you do when you forget? Do you stand there like a moron with your mouth open? Well, yes, we all do sometimes. But after a while, or if you’re thinking quick, you’ll improvise. You’ll think of all the similar things and do something like that. You’ll look in the places you’ve found your keys in the past. You’ll mention another, similar college. You’ll swing the hammer the way you swing a tennis racket or you’ll substitute a word that fits in the song.

That’s what we do with the past tense. We think of how we’ve made the past tense of all the similar verbs and do something like that. We linguists call that analogy.

In researching the title for this post, I discovered that it comes from Nietzsche, of all people. Funny enough, I agree with Nietzsche that cultural change comes from forgetting, but I disagree with him that it needs to be an “active forgetting.” Passive forgetting seems to work just fine.

If you want to find out how analogy leads to “snoze” and “snuck,” you can read Bybee and Slobin’s papers at the links above, or watch this space and I’ll post more about it soon.

Illustration: Joseph M. Gleeson

Just so stories in French negation

Just So stories were named by Rudyard Kipling in his book of the same name, which contained stories like “How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin.” In that one, the rhino’s skin starts out tight, but after he takes it off to swim, a man put crumbs in it to take revenge for the rhino eating his cake. When the rhino put his skin back on, it itched so much he loosened it up with all his scratching. Presumably something similar happened with basset hounds.

These stories can be fun, especially for kids who ask “why?” and won’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. They’re entertaining, but they’re not science and they’re not history. Even if they’re broadly consistent with a scientific theory, if they’re not based on actual data, they’re just fiction.

This is different from the normal simplification that happens in scientific explanations. We know that the Earth is not a perfectly round sphere, that it bulges out a little at the equator. Sometimes it’s enough to think of the world as round, and nobody needs to worry about oblate spheroids.

The main difference is that scientific simplification removes distracting detail from the raw data to allow the bigger picture to be seen more clearly, but Just So stories add detail that doesn’t exist in the data, and may actually create a picture that doesn’t exist. This is why, as science, they are so dangerous.

Linguistics is certainly no stranger to Just So stories. The most famous may be the old chestnut that the Eskimos have a hundred (or a thousand, or…) words for snow. This has long been used to illustrate the effect of environment on language, even though Geoffrey Pullum famously showed it to be false in 1989.

Just So stories are also found in the history of French negation, the subject of my dissertation. There is a story that you will find in almost every article or book discussing the evolution of negation. Here’s the version from Detges and Waltereit (2002):

As a standard example of grammaticalization, consider the French negation ne … pas. A lexical item, the Latin full noun passus ‘step’, has turned into a grammatical item, the Modern French negation marker pas.

(3) a. Before grammaticalization: Latin
non vado   passum
NEG go:lsG step:ACC
'I don't go a step'

b. After grammaticalization: Modern French
je ne vais   pas
I NEG go:lSG NEG
'I don't go'

Reading this, I assumed that Detges and Waltereit have some attestations of non vado passum in Latin. That’s the way science works, and history. We do experiments to collect data, and we base our stories of the past on documents and artifacts. In historical linguistics we have what people wrote, and we have reconstructions. Because the reconstructions are less reliable as evidence, we mark them with asterisks.

I was all ready to repeat this story as I told the history of French negation. In fact, one of my professors suggested that I look for evidence of pas being initially restricted to verbs of motion, then gradually used with a broader and broader range of verbs. I did look, but I discovered that it’s just a story. We don’t have any evidence that anyone ever wrote non vado passum, other than linguists talking about grammaticization.

What I did find was this excellent three-part opus on Romance negation by Alfred Schweighäuser, published in 1851-52, digitized to PDF by Google Books and extracted for your convenience here (section 1, section 2, section 3). In section 3 (Part 2), he takes you on a very thorough tour of all the expressions that have been used to “supplement” negation in Latin and its descendants over the years. After spending some time discussing ne … pas, he concludes:

Observons toutefois que cette modification apportée au sens du mot pas est antérieure aux plus anciens monuments de la langue. Si haut que nous remontions dans le cours des siècles, les textes ne nous montrent jamais cette négation explétive que privée de l’article, et jointe indiféremment à des verbes de toute signification.

Let us note in any case that this modification made to the sense of the word pas is earlier than the most remote works of the language. No matter how far back we look across the centuries, the texts only show us that negation shorn of its article and combined indifferently with verbs from any semantic field.

One thing I find remarkable about this is that these aspects of language change were known and studied 161 years ago. And yet it was only a year later, in 1853, that P.L.J.B. Gaussin gave us our first citation of non vado passum:

Nous avons encore à parler d’une dernière modification que quelques mots subissent : elle a lieu lorsque, par suite d’un emploi très-fréquent, ils ne deviennent que de simples formes grammaticales. C’est un fait que nous aurons l’occasion de vérifier en polynésien ; nous en trouvons d’ailleurs de nombreux exemples dans nos langues d’Europe : on connaît l’origine des négations françaises pas et point ; on a d’abord dit non vado passum ou passu, je ne vais d’un pas ; non video punctum, je ne vois un point. Pas et point, par un usage devenu de plus en plus général, n’ont plus été par la suite que de simples signes grammaticaux.

We have yet to discuss one last modification that certain words undergo. It happens when, in the course of very frequent usage, they are transformed into simple grammatical forms. This is a fact that we will have the opportunity to confirm in Polynesian; we also find many examples in our European languages. We know the origin of the French negations pas and point: people first said non vado passum or passu, I am not going one step, non video punctum, I do not see one point. Pas and point, by virtue of more and more general usage, have become nothing more than simple grammatical signs.

Schweighäuser and Gaussin perfectly illustrate the difference between history and Just So stories. Schweighäuser combs through Latin and Old French texts in detail to find all the different ways that the words are used. His wealth of detail is perfectly appropriate for his task, but the story could be told to outsiders in a compelling way by simply omitting some of that detail. There are many examples of this kind of semantic broadening with other constructions; those could have been used instead. But Gaussin doesn’t do that. He just makes stuff up.

It is obviously silly to single out Detges and Waltereit for this Just So story, since it came from Gaussin, and has been handed down ever since. But other than a brief mention in 1907, it was dormant until Lüdtke (1980) revived it. It seems to have been most widely propagated by Paolo Ramat in 1987.

Looking back on this, I appreciate my professor’s invitation to re-examine this story rather than simply repeating it. We should do that with all of our standard stories, to find out which ones are supported by the data, and which are Just So.

Two changes in French negation

I realized today that I hadn’t yet blogged about my dissertation, the Spread of Change in French Negation. That’s too bad, because I like my dissertation topic. It’s fun, and it’s interesting.

You may see here, from time to time, posts about my dissertation research. I’ll try to make them accessible to anyone, not just the specialized audience that I wrote the dissertation for. If you have a reaction or a question I hope you’ll comment or send me an email. If there’s anything you don’t understand, please tell me, because I mean for this blog to be easy to understand.

When I studied French in high school, I learned the standard line: that to negate a sentence you put ne before the verb and pas after it: Je sais becomes Je ne sais pas. But then my teachers were smart enough to show me a movie that aimed for authentic language. Diva, the 1981 action film, features a moped chase in the Paris Métro, and a pair of grumpy hitmen. One of the gangsters is a man of few words, but he repeatedly takes the time to say that he doesn’t like whatever’s at hand. And in one scene with cars, he says, “J’aime pas les bagnoles.” In case our French wasn’t good enough, we had the subtitle: I don’t like cars.

I laughed, I repeated the line, mimicking Dominique Pinon’s terse delivery. Then I realized: what happened to the ne? The other lines where the hitman declared his dislike for elevators and other burdensome features of the environment were also missing the ne. And years later when I went to live in Paris and walk through the same métro stations, I heard lots of negation with the pas only, no ne. I learned to negate my own sentences with just a casual pas after the verb, because when in Paris, do as the Parisians do.

Another six years later, in a class on Frequency Effects in Language Change, Joan Bybee asked us to pick a change for our term project. I chose to look at French negation. I was sure the story of the missing ne would turn out to be a compelling one.

I was right. It was so compelling that it already had a big literature on it. Worse, because it had only recently entered mainstream media, the data on ne-dropping were hard for me to get in time for a term paper. But as I looked further back in time, I discovered an earlier change. This one had been studied a lot, but not quite as much, and there was quite a lot of data. This was the original addition of pas to the ne. Or, as I was to find out, the large increase in the use of ne … pas.

Want to read the rest of the story? Stay tuned to this blog. If you can’t wait, go read my dissertation. Oh, and ask if you have questions!