July 8, 2009

Study tracks English language change

A Swedish doctoral student has tracked changes in English language usage, examining the world million and how its usage has morphed.

Donald MacQueen of Uppsala University said he used historical collections that include everything ever written in a dozen U.S. and British newspapers, including news, features, editorials and classified advertisements.

In his English linguistics dissertation, MacQueen examined the word million, especially how language usage shifted from the previously nearly totally dominant 5 millions of inhabitants to today's 5 million inhabitants.

He said he determined the modern construction occurred in U.S. newspapers during the middle 1880s and in Britain only during the mid-1910s. That, he said, suggests usage in U.S. newspapers influenced the shift in the British newspapers.

He said the transition occurred about the same time the U.S. economy overtook the British economy, an event MacQueen suspects was an impetus for the change.

Another discovery I made "¦ is that when the use of the two constructions began to be roughly equal in frequency, the newspapers chose quite simply to avoid using such constructions, writing numeral expressions instead, he said. After World War II, when there was no longer any doubt which construction was the 'right' one, the newspapers reverted to writing number-word expressions again.

MacQueen defended his dissertation June 8.