Words are being dropped from languages faster and new ones added at a slower rate.
Adding new words or dropping old ones to an existing language 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.
Suspecting that the addition of new words to languages might be inhibited by modern tools such as spellcheckers, the team looked at 107 words that have been recorded by 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, and if that doesn’t happen, they tend to die.
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