L2′s annual Innovation Forum will be held on November 7 this year at the Morgan Library. The full day, TED style forum will feature experts speaking to a variety of innovations in digital marketing, commerce, and social media. Below we highlight two of our speakers, Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden who will give a talk on “Big History: What We Can Learn From the Digitized Historical Record.”

Michel and Aiden are data researchers who both hold joint academic appointments at Harvard and Google. They are the Founding Directors of Harvard’s Cultural Observatory, where their team uses quantitative methods to study history, language, culture, and societies. At Google, both are instrumental to the Google Books NGram Viewer, a tool that shows how usage of specific words has changed throughout the past few centuries. Their joint research has been published on the covers of Nature and Science.

Using mathematics, Michel and Aiden’s work generates insights on traditionally non-quantitative fields such as history and the humanities. One piece of their research delves into the evolution of the English language — specifically grammatical rules on the past-tense conjugation of verbs. Why is it that some irregular verbs have regularized over time — for example, ‘wrought’ has changed to ‘worked’  — while others have not? The duo found that the rate of regularization depends on the frequency of the verb’s usage and can be observed using a simple mathematical pattern. Much like radioactive atoms, irregular verbs also have a half-life which the pair calculated to be proportional to the square root of its usage frequency. In other words, irregular verbs that are 100 times less frequently used regularize 10 times faster. By studying the frequency of word usage, the pair was also able to predict the next irregular verb to regularize: ‘to wed,’ the past tense conjugation of which is now commonly used as ‘wedded.’

To register for the L2 Innovation Forum, click on the link below. Registration is complimentary for L2 Members.

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