Sunday, March 18, 2012

Language = words = spelling, etc.

When you see this headline in the Wall Street Journal, you might get nervous if you're a linguist (the WSJ piece is here and the article it discusses here:
The New Science of the Birth and Death of Words
Have physicists discovered the evolutionary laws of language in Google's library?
The punch line is that words are dying out faster than they're being created. 

The actual research article behind the journalistic story — "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death", by Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, H. Eugene Stanley — is  pretty interesting in several ways. They chart stuff like how synonyms for new things get sorted out over time. For example, early on, people tended to say roentgenogram or radiogram more than xray, which eventually won out as the usual term in English. That's useful to know for people looking at language variation and change, among many others.

But the journalistic story may confirm your worries if you've had Ling 101. The title might worry you a little, in that the 'evolutionary laws of language' ≠ birth and death of new words.

But consider this:
Higher death rates for words, the authors say, are largely a matter of homogenization. The explorer William Clark (of Lewis & Clark) spelled "Sioux" 27 different ways in his journals ("Sieoux," "Seaux," "Souixx," etc.), and several of those variants would have made it into 19th-century books. Today spell-checking programs and vigilant copy editors choke off such chaotic variety much more quickly, in effect speeding up the natural selection of words.
Now, if radiogram dies out and xray carries the day, that's an interesting fact. But spelling variants? Has language changed in any meaningful sense if we stop writing Seaux?* That's not about the 'death rate' for 'words' but regularization of orthography. And the whole homogenization thing feeds the language-is-going-to-hell meme. At least it ends on a skeptical note:
In the end, words and sentences aren't atoms and molecules, even if they can be fodder for the same formulas.
True. Would be nice to have a linguist on teams like this ...


Image from here.


Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm. Going too easy on the author of the paper there, Mr. V?

And digital humanities is now 'culturomics'? Seriously?

Mr. Verb said...

The paper would have certainly been better if they'd had a linguist on the team! But there is interesting data in there.

Unknown said...

A short list of things that people generally don't get about language.
1) There's a lot of variation, socially, geographically, temporally, etc.
2) The spoken and written language need to be considered (somewhat) separately.

Mr. Verb said...


Yes, and standardization of especially written language tends to sift out variation in formal, published written texts over time.

Seems like a linguist would help physicists understand what such points mean for interpreting their findings ...