Randy and the Half-Life of Irregular Verbs

Last night I met up with Randy Alexander of Sinoglot, Yuwen, and Echoes of Manchu for dinner and imported beers. We had a great chat, with topics ranging from English and Chinese linguistics, to sci-fi and (evil genius) Joel Martinsen, to the Sinoglot crew and how they tricked Randy into learning Manchu.

We started talking about some of our favorite linguistics articles, on Language Log or elsewhere, and I brought up the one about the half-life of irregular verbs in English. I wanted to send Randy a link, but I was dismayed to discover that the original article by Harvard University mathematician Erez Lieberman is now behind a pay wall. All you can find are articles linking to what was once a freely accessible article.

But I dug some more (we’re still quite a few years away from regularizing to “digged,” I’m guessing), and I eventually found what looks like a freely available copy of the original article, Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language, courtesy of our friends at NIH. Unfortunately, what’s still missing is the great chart the original paper included, which ordered irregular verbs by frequency and gave time estimates (in years) for the regularization of each. (There is an unordered list in text file format linked to in the article, though.)

What does this have to do with Chinese? I’d love to see similar studies for modern Mandarin. Sure, there are no conjugations for Chinese verbs, so it wouldn’t be about the regularization of irregular verbs. But it could be about variable pronunciations of certain words (like 角色, or 说服), or selection of characters (is it or ?). A good chunk of Chinese academia is still obsessed with standardization and what is “correct,” so you don’t see many objective studies, but that attitude won’t last forever. Chinese corpus linguistics is relatively young, but it’s making great strides, and I really look forward to seeing this kind of research in the future.

What research of this type would you like to see?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. jdmartinsen Says: July 29, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I thought it was common knowledge that I’d chosen to use my powers for good…

    On the subject of selection of characters: The recent book A Cultural History of 她 (“她”字的文化史, 2009) by Huang Xingtao (黄兴涛) is a fascinating look at how that character was adopted as the standard female pronoun. Liberally illustrated with scans of early 20th century documents, it looks at the history of gendered pronouns in traditional Chinese literature, engagement with western languages, feminist theory, and a host of rejected alternative characters. However, it’s more of a survey of the literature of the debate, spiced up with examples of practical use, than a quantitative analysis.

    • That sounds pretty cool; I’ll have to check it out. Not sure if I want to read a whole book on that subject, but it definitely sounds worth a look. (I love “alternative characters!”)

  2. @jdmartinsen: That sounds like a very interesting read, is it possible to find an English translation anywhere. My Chinese reading skill are barely enough for online newspapers, but gendered pronoun characters in Chinese interest me. I’ve gotten in debates where Chinese defend 她 even when I point out (using English errors as evidence) that they subconsciously consider 她/他 and perhaps 它 to be the same. I also recently saw a fourth form, 祂, used in a Church to represent God and Jesus (Like the capitalized pronouns that are still sometimes used in English).

    I also wonder about forms of 你. I’ve seen 妳 and 袮, but only rarely, and no female friends get mad at me for using 你, so I presume the variants aren’t as well known.

  3. I’m interested in that book as well!

  4. David Moser Says: August 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I’ve gotta get that book!! Sounds tamade interesting. Thanks for the tip, Joel. Just to make a plug: I discuss briefly the cognitive aspects of 他/她 in a paper called “Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese”, available at


    (Just to distinguish here, there are actually two Martinsens: “good” Joel and “evil” JO-EL.)

  5. What I’d really like to see is some applied usage of corpora to help design Mandarin Chinese language courses.

    A friend of mine with some basic Chinese just learned ……得很. I’ve never heard that pattern uttered in dialogue. Ever.

    Too much time is wasted learning uncommon words and rarely used grammatical patterns at the expense of more common words and patterns.

  6. 做 and 作 have different pronunciation in cantonese.. so cantonese-speaking ppl seldom make mistake with them when writing, compared to mandarin-speaking ppl. actually cantonese retains more of the original pronunciation of old chinese, and it has 9 tonations. it is easier to distinguish which word the speaker is using in a cantonese conversation, coz it doesn’t give as much confusion as mandarin, which has a lot of chinese characters pronounced in the same way/tone.

    @GAC: actually there’s also this character: 牠 which is for animals, not for plants though. 它 is for non-living objects and for plants, okay for animals but strictly speaking, 牠 is more appropriate/correct, but people often use 牠 and 它 interchangeably for animals nowadays, especially in mainland china (probably they simplified 牠 to be 它). 祂 is very commonly used among chinese christians nowadays, coz the left hand side of this character refers to God-related things, so they invented this word. Much in the same way how english capitalizes the word ‘he’ when referring to God to avoid confusion.

    Um… I don’t think chinese consider “她/他 and perhaps 它 to be the same”.. you can use 他 instead of 她, but surely you don’t use 它 for 她/他. however sometimes you can use 她/他 for animals, especially when ppl talk about their own pets.

    well originally there is only one word 他 which can be used for both sex, and teachers teach this origin to kids too (at least when I was at primary school), but teachers generally recommend us to use these two characters individually, which I think it’s good coz when you’re reading sth then you can immediately tell whether the writer refers to a he or a she. It is common practice to use the two characters separately nowadays, especially among the newer generations. It’s quite rare now to use 他 to refer to a female.

    As for ‘you’, same case, we were taught 你 and 妳, but somehow, people are not so fussy about using 妳 for females all the time. A girl won’t get offended if you use 你, using 他 she will feel a bit uncomfortable.

    Actually some ppl has this trick of using 你 and 他 all the time in writing, so ppl can’t tell whether they mean a he or a she. E.g. A guy wrote bad things about a certain person, and he did mention the name of that person in his writing. The girl whom he talked about in his writing may wanna sue him, but because he used 他 all the way in his article, he can argue that he was referring to a guy with the same name as that girl, because 他 can be used for females as well and as you know, chinese names only suggest gender difference but does not provide a definite cut between the two. it’s perfectly legal to use a girlish name for a boy, just that the boy will have loads of peer pressure when he grows up.. 😛

    ……得很 is actually not that uncommon.. e.g. 好得很 (very good), 貴得很(very expensive). But yea probably don’t worry about it when u first start learning chinese. 😉

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