The Rich-Get-Richer Phenomenon and Language Evolution: The Case of the German Present Perfect

  • Valentina Concu Purdue University
Keywords: networks, emergent grammar, complexity theory


This paper explores language evolution within a complex network framework and, in particular, the preferential attachment tendency, also known as the Rich-get-Richer phenomenon, in the development of the German present perfect. This process, which was first discovered in the World Wide Web where “the links are formed preferentially to pages that already have high popularity” (Easley & Kleinberg: 2010), refers to the dynamics involved in the growth of complex scale-free networks (Barabási & Albert 1999) and, in more general terms, to the development of complex adaptive systems that show a power law degree of distribution: when new connections are created, they connect to the few hubs in the network that already have a high number of links.

I argue that the same phenomenon can be found in the evolution of specific grammatical structures and I will provide evidence using written data from different time periods related to the history of German. Diachronic linguistics analyses show indeed that the evolution of the present perfect displays the same patterns observed in the World Wide Web; in the first attestations from the Old High German period just a few verbs could be combined with the auxiliary verbs. The lexicon’s growth in Middle High German and the expansion of contexts in which the present perfect could be used increased the number of possible combinations. Today in New High German, every verb can be coupled with the auxiliary verbs.

In conclusion, this paper provides general support for the implementation of a network framework for the study of the dynamics involved in language change and evolution, as well as support for a Complexity Theory approach, which considers human languages as complex adaptive systems, as described by Hopper (1998), Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2009) and Bybee (1994, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010).

Keywords: networks, emergent grammar, complexity theory 

Author Biography

Valentina Concu, Purdue University

Teachter Assistent for German,

Department of German and Russian

School of Languages and Cultures