The Atlantic

The Randomness of Language Evolution

English is shaped by more than natural selection.
Source: Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

Joshua Plotkin’s dive into the evolution of language began with clarity—and also a lack of it.

Today, if you wanted to talk about something that’s clear, you’d say that it has clarity. But if you were around in 1890, you would almost certainly have talked about its clearness.

first noticed this linguistic change while playing with Google’s Ngram Viewer, a search engine that charts the frequencies of words across millions of books. The viewer shows that a century ago, dominated . Now the opposite is true, which is strange because isn’t even a regular form. If you wanted to create a noun from , would be a more obvious choice. “Why would there be this big upswing in clarity?,” Plotkin wondered. “Is there a force

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