The English language has effectively organised itself for centuries, even without any kind of oversight or control from an official body, according to a new study. The study led by researchers at Stony Brook University in the US demonstrates that the spelling of English words is more orderly and self-organised than linguistics have previously thought. The finding is an indication that the self-organisation of English occurred even though the language has never been regulated or governed through the centuries. Unlike France and Italy, and other countries where national academies oversee the written language, no English-speaking country has a language academy to organise and regulate the language. The study examined previously unnoticed systemic aspects of English spelling and explains how the system emerged on its own. Researchers specifically investigated the spelling of four derivational suffixes and showed the spelling over time is quite consistent - even considering the sounds of the suffixes, like many English words, can be spelled in various ways. The suffixes include: -ous, found in words such as hazardous and nervous; -ic, found in words like allergic; -al, such as in the word final; and -y, as in funny. "English spelling was well on its way to its modern incarnation, and no single group seems to have played a notable role in the movement of English spelling towards greater consistency," said lead investigator Mark Aronoff, Professor at Stony Brook University. "We show in this article that the system became gradually more consistent over a period of several hundred years, starting before the advent of printers, orthoepists, or dictionary makers, presumably through the simple interaction of the members of the community of spellers, a sort of self-organizing social network," he said. For each of the suffixes, the researchers, including Kristian Berg of the University of Oldenburg in Germany, analysed a large sample of written English documents dating back close to one thousand years. For every word that follows a certain modern spelling with the suffix the researchers looked at each instance in their sample and kept track of how the world was spelled.
They found a number of spellings for each suffix over time. However, for each suffix one form of spelling eventually won out over another and followed a pattern that led to consistency in spelling. The finding was published in the journal Language.
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