Enlarge (credit: flickr user: Caro Wallis)
Linguists know a huge amount about the historical changes that have shaped the English we speak today, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.
In some cases, new tools that linguists stole from biologists are letting us ask questions that we haven’t been able to address before.
A paper in Nature this week shows that randomness has an important influence on how language changes over time—in much the same way as random genetic mutation plays a central role in biological evolution.

And by borrowing tools from biology, the researchers point to some examples of historical change in English that are best explained by random processes.
Random drift or biased brains?
The parallels between biological evolution and cultural evolution are not always exact, but there are some pretty robust similarities. Like genetic mutations, new forms appear in language.

As with genes, some of those new forms become more prevalent over time.
If a mutated gene is beneficial, natural selection ensures that it becomes more popular; if a new linguistic form is preferred for some reason, cultural selection makes it more popular.
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