[lg policy] More words dying and fewer words being added to languages in digital age: study

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 20 19:29:19 UTC 2012

More words dying and fewer words being added to languages in digital age:
study March 19, 2012 <http://www.physorg.com/archive/19-03-2012/> by Bob
Yirka [image: report] <http://www.physorg.com/weblog/> [image: More words
dying and fewer words being added to languages in digital age: study]

Enlarge <http://cdn.physorg.com/newman/gfx/news/hires/2012/morewordsdyi.jpg>

Word extinction. The English word “Roentgenogram” derives from the Nobel
prize winning scientist and discoverer of the X-ray, Wilhelm Röntgen
(1845-1923). The prevalence of this word was quickly challenged by two main
competitors, “X-ray” (recorded as “Xray” in the database) and “Radiogram.”
The arithmetic mean frequency of these three time series is relatively
constant over the 80-year period 1920-2000, 〈 f 〉 ≈ 10^-7, illustrating the
limited linguistic “market share” that can be achieved by any competitor.
We conjecture that the main reason “Xray” has a higher frequency is due to
the “fitness gain” from its efficient short word length and also due to the
fact that English has become the base language for scientific publication.
Image (c) *Scientific Reports* doi:10.1038/srep00313

*(PhysOrg.com) -- Adding new words to an existing language, or dropping old
ones is something people have always done. As new things or ideas are
discovered, new words crop up to describe them. But now, in the digital
age, that process appears to be slowing despite the increased pace of new
things arriving on the scene. In a paper in Scientific Reports, a group
from the Institutions Markets Technologies' Lucca Institute for Advanced
Studies in Italy, describe how they have found after studying English,
Spanish and Hebrew trends, that words are being dropped from languages
faster and new ones added at a slower rate, than at any other time over the
past three hundred years.*

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Suspecting that the addition of new
words<http://www.physorg.com/tags/words/>to languages might be
inhibited by modern tools such as spellcheckers, the
team looked at 107 words that have been recorded by
Google<http://www.physorg.com/tags/google/>as part of its book
digitizing process, which is now estimated to represent
somewhere near four percent of all of the world’s books. Because they are
in digital form, it is possible to perform statistical analysis on them,
which is just what the team did. In doing so, they were able to note when
new words appeared in a language and then to see if they held on long
enough to become permanent, or if they vanished after a certain amount of
time. Analyzed works included books from 1800 to 2008.

One of the most striking results the team found was that words being lost
from the three languages occurred more often in the past ten to twenty
years than in all of the other eras in the period of study. They also found
that newer words were being added less frequently during the same period
indicating that modern languages are shrinking. They suggest that
electronic spellcheckers introduced during this period might be partly
responsible for the change, as might the tendency to gravitate towards a
smaller vocabulary when writing emails and especially when texting. They
also cite the increased use of just one language, English, in science
endeavors and projects, regardless of native tongue.

Interestingly, the group also found that when new words are added in the
digital age, they tend to become mainstream much faster than occurred in
previous years, likely because of the same modern electronic communications
tools that are causing languages to constrict. They also found that it
generally takes at least forty years for new words to become truly accepted
as a part of a language <http://www.physorg.com/tags/language/>, and if
that doesn’t happen, they tend to die.

* More information:* Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use
from Word Birth to Word Death, *Scientific Reports* 2, Article number: 313
doi:10.1038/srep00313 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep00313>

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish
and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the
coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent
patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution.
A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of
words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use.
For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40
years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into
standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced
changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word
correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely
influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors.
We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the
use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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