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Those dying words

How language evolves through a fight for survival

books Updated: Mar 23, 2012 18:28 IST

Words are competing daily in an almost Darwinian struggle for survival, says research by scientists who analysed more than 10 million words used over the last 200 years.

Drawing their material from Google’s huge book-digitisation project, the international team of academics tracked the usage of every word recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the 209-year period between 1800 and 2008. The scientists, who include Boston University’s Joel Tenenbaum and IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies’ Alexander Petersen, said their study shows that “words are competing actors in a system of finite resources”. Just as firms battle for market share, words compete to be used by writers or speakers, to grab the attention of readers or listeners.

There has been a “drastic increase in the death rate of words” in the modern print era, the academics discovered. They attributed it to the growing use of automatic spellcheckers, and stricter editing procedures, wiping out misspellings and errors. “Most changes to the vocabulary in the last 10-20 years are due to the extinction of misspelled words, and to the decreased birth rate of genuinely new words,” the scientists write in their just-published study. “The words dying have low relative use. By visual inspection, lists of dying words contain mostly misspelled and nonsensical words.”

Sometimes words are driven to extinction by aggressive competitors. ‘Roentgenogram, for example, deriving from the discoverer of the x-ray, William Röntgen, was widely used for several decades in the 20th century. Challenged by ‘x-ray’ and ‘radiogram’, it has fallen out of use.

“Analogous to recessions and booms in a global economy, the marketplace for words waxes and wanes as historical events unfold,” write the researchers. “And like financial regulations meant to limit risk and market domination, standardisation technologies such as dictionary and spellcheckers serve as powerful arbiters in determining the properties of word evolution.”