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English Language Evolution Slower Than In Centuries Past

July 30, 2012

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

OMG! The English language is, like, totally changing less quickly than it did during the 16th and 17th centuries and stuff!

All kidding aside, a new study published in the latest edition of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface has discovered that an increasing amount of the most popular terms and phrases are remaining in heavy use for multiple decades instead of having a more limited shelf life, according to a Friday article by USA Today reporter Dan Vergano.

The study was written by Matjaz Perc, a physicist with Slovenia’s University of Maribor, who used Google Books Team data to gauge the frequency of word use in an estimated 5.2 million English-language books, or approximately 4% of those published between 1520 and 2008, reports the AFP news agency.

“During the 16th and 17th centuries, the popularity (of words) was very fleeting“¦ Top words in the year 1600, for example, are no longer top words in the year 1610,” Perc said, according to the French news organization. During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, that began to change, with popular words and phrases remaining in use for longer periods of time. By the 19th century, the evolution had slowed to such a degree that “the words that are most common during the year 1950, for example, are also the most common even today.”

Religious words and phrases, including “God,” “Christ,” “baptized in the name of,” and “God forbid it should be,” were among the most popular phrases in the 1500s and 1600s, the AFP reported.

“Phrases like ‘House of Commons’ and words like ‘Queen’ and ‘Duke’ started climbing the list by the mid- to late 17th century. Top phrases in the 1700s included ‘the Church of England’, ‘the Law of Nature’ and ‘the Orb of the Sun’,” they added. “By the 1800s the pattern started looking more as it does today, with formulaic phrases like ‘at the same time’ or ‘in the midst of’ featuring most prominently. In 1919, the year after World War I ended, the ninth most-published five-word phrase was ‘for extraordinary heroism in action’.”

To demonstrate how much the language has changed over the years, Vergano posted Perc’s list of the most commonly used phrases from both 1575 and 2008. For 1575, that list included the phrases “I have the honour to,” “Long Service and Good Conduct”, “Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty”, “officers and men of the”, and “on the morning of the”. In 2008, the five most commonly used phrases were “at the end of the,” “on the part of the”, “in the middle of the”, “in the form of a” and “the other side of the,” leading the USA Today reporter to quip that the language “certainly has gotten a lot more boring, hasn’t it?”

In actuality, as Colin Schultz of Smithsonian Magazine pointed out in a July 25 blog entry, the language “has been in a nearly constant state of linguistic evolution, its speakers picking up phrases and words from other languages or devising new ones of their own,” for more than 1500 years, and Perc’s findings are “a blow to the argument that text and internet speak is destroying the sanctity of English. Languages change, it´s just what they do.”


Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online