English Evolving Much More Slowly on the Internet than During the Renaissance

A new study charted how English has changed over the past 500 years, finding it to be more stagnant than ever before

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The English language kicked off more than 1500 years ago with—as described in the video The History of English in 10 Minutes—the departure of the Romans from Britain. Since then, English has been in a nearly constant state of linguistic evolution, its speakers picking up phrases and words from other languages or devising new ones of their own.

A new study by University of Maribor researcher Matjaž Perc tried to quantify this lexical growth. Perc used Google’s Ngram viewer to tabulate the the number of times words were used in around 4 percent of books published between 1520 and 2008.

The analysis found that in earlier days, the language changed very rapidly. Agence France-Press reports,

“During the 16th and 17th centuries, the popularity (of words) was very fleeting,” Perc found. “ top words in the year 1600, for example, are no longer top words in the year 1610.”

As time went on, English became a bigger language, but also more formulaic.

By the 1800s the pattern started looking more as it does today, with formulaic phrases like “at the same time” or “in the midst of” featuring most prominently.

New Scientist says,

By 2008, the most frequently written five-word phrases were along the lines of “at the end of the”, “in the middle of the” and “on the other side of”.

As Lifehacker points out, the research is a blow to the argument that text and internet speak is destroying the sanctity of English. Languages change, it’s just what they do. Maybe what English really needs is a good kick in the pants, to shake off the shackles of the modern stagnation?

More from Smithsonian.com:

The History of English in 10 Minutes

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