The Wild Life of Words
Not to personify here, but did you know words are born, die and have mid-life crises?
According to a team of statistical physicists, words emerge into a language and are either sustained or driven to extinction. In a March 2012 paper entitled “Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death,” the authors, using Google’s Ngram viewer estimate there are one million words in the English language. Google’s Ngram Viewer is a searchable corpus of digitized texts (4% of all the books ever printed) allowing for quantitative study of cultural trends and human behavior through computational lexicology known as “culturomics.”
These scientists see language existing in a competitive evolutionary environment, just like Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. During statistical studies of word patterns in English, Spanish and Hebrew they discovered strikingly similar trajectories for the rates of birth and death for words.
English grows at an estimated rate of 8,500 new words per year, a “birth rate” that is slowing. They hypothesize this slowing is due to an already existing rich environment of words. Current objects are well described and new words are quickly born but limited because they describe something singular and new like “iPad” or “YouTube.”
The death of a word, unlike human mortality, refers to an extreme rarity of its use. Historically, there is a notable increase in word deaths after the 1950s. Modern day publishing with strict editing procedures and spell check technology created a homogenization effect on our language contributing to a faster natural selection of words. Despite the arrival of texting, the birth rate of misspelled word variations has dropped dramatically. Synonyms choke out words too, for instance “loanmoneys” died around 1950 when it was replaced by “loans.”
Words cycle through a mid-life crisis too: a universal “tipping point” identified by the study. The authors claim 30 to 50 years after being born, words either become part of the long-term lexicon or die from disuse. Theories for why this exists include a generational acceptance or rejection of (their parent’s) terms or the point where dictionary publishers decide to include a term or not.
Words live, die and compete for survival just like the dodo bird. Their continued existence depends on historical context (international crises create common media attention increasing lexical diffusion), trends in global communication and means for standardizing communication (technology). Just like the animals on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, some will make it and others will not.
Welcome to the wild life of words.