Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8260–8265 (2018)

Modern languages are changeable beasts. New conventions emerge frequently to alter the way we communicate with one another. But how does the pathway to change — be it self-organizing or institutionally imposed — affect the pattern of uptake of a language norm? According to Roberta Amato and colleagues, the mechanism by which a change occurs leaves distinct traces in the printed word — as they found when they examined more than 2,000 norms in English and Spanish books published between 1800 and 2008.

Amato et al. looked at the way that changes brought about by formal institutions like the Royal Spanish Academy differ from those enacted informally, such as spelling changes popularized by dictionary updates. They compared these mechanisms with cases of spontaneous evolution, like the adoption of American ‘garbage’ in place of British ‘rubbish’. A simple evolutionary model led the authors to conclude that the influence of a formal institution makes for a sharp transition, whereas spontaneous uptake relies heavily on mechanisms of imitation and reproduction.