A group of physicists recently collaborated on a statistical survey of words. You may be wondering why physicists are interested in language. In this case, it is not language per se, but how words imitate the statistical patterns of the stock market and animal populations. This group of researchers, led by Alexander Petersen of the IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies, culled data from Google’s digitized books to analyze how word use varies over time.
In particular, the scientists looked at “word competition.” Why would words compete? Well, this isn’t about competition between words. Obviously, for language as a whole to function, nouns need verbs, which need prepositions and adverbs. In this sense, competition refers to aggression between different variations of a word: is “color” used more than “colour”? It may be hard to imagine this, but before spell-check there were often misspelled words in newspapers and published books. As the researchers point out: “With the advent of spell-checkers in the digital era, the fitness of a ‘correctly’ spelled word is now larger than the fitness of related ‘incorrectly’ spelled words.”
How does spell-check (and grammar check) work in the first place?
Completely new words are often the product of an innovation, such as the internet, but languages also evolve because of new settings. Who knows if Americanisms like “skedaddle”, “rambunctious” , and “discombobulate” would have survived spell-check if they had arisen later in time.
The physicists also looked at synonym death. Have you ever heard of a radiogram? Probably not. The words radiogram and roentgenogram mean an x-ray. This may come as a shock, but before the 20th century, the word “roentgenogram” was used most frequently. Today, x-ray is the dominant word, while radiogram and roentgenogram are nearly extinct. Shorter more efficient words can eventually kill their longer, clunkier brethren.
Due to synonym death and the widespread use of spell-check, words are dying. Using complex algorithms, the scientists discovered that in the past 40 years more words have died than during any other period in their data (from 1800 – 2008). At the same time, fewer words are being successfully introduced into the language. As the scientists conclude: “In the past 10-20 years, the total number of distinct words has significantly decreased, which we find is due largely to the extinction of both misspelled words and nonsensical print errors, and simultaneously, the decreased birth rate of new misspelled variations.” Statistically speaking, the language is shrinking.
I do have to wonder if this article would have been written in quite the same way had the remit been given to some at the OED, or indeed had the research been conducted outside of the United States, and in light of the (again, US) research that people who text more often are more reluctant to take on new words… who is responsible for the shrinkage of the English language?