Reading University researchers have developed a computer programme that has identified the words “I”, “we”, and the numbers “1”, “2” and “3” as some of the oldest still in use.
With them I could, apparently, communicate with a prehistoric ancester. I couldn’t discuss the current “global economic meltdown” (see my ealier post on Armegeddon language) but I could manage, maybe: “I hungry, need 3 helpings of roast Mastodon. We hunt now!”.
The researchers are also predicting which words are likely to become extinct, citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as those most likely to become obsolete first (according to a BBC article on the project).
This means the sentence: “I had some bad sushi last night and I feel like my guts are being squeezed out through my bottom, so I’ll stick to dry toast for lunch” will, one day, have no meaning.
This story has thrown my morning out of wack because I’m now obsessing about what enables some words to thrive while others do not? I can see the importance of being able to identify myself (I), creating alliances (we) and basic numbers (1, 2, 3). Does that mean usefulness is the key to language longevity? If so, are the words which die out (or are on their last legs), words which are no longer useful?
Or is it to do with the fact that we have better / alternative words? Is ‘guts’ going because ‘stomach’ or ‘entrails’ are more accurate alternatives?
And what influence, if any, does the medium of delivery have on a word’s viability? Are some words less viable because they are open to misenterpretation when skimmed at speed online, for example? And are words liable to die out through overuse. (In which case, please let ‘Welcome’ go first. THE most overused word on the internet.)
According to the Reading researchers, the less frequently certain words are used, the more likely they are to be replaced.
Other simple rules have been uncovered – numerals evolve the slowest, then nouns, then verbs, then adjectives. Conjunctions and prepositions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’ , ‘on’, ‘over’ and ‘against’ evolve the fastest, some as much as 100 times faster than numerals.
The evolution of language interests CDA. It was one of the driving forces behind our recent language pathways white paper. I’m firmly convinced that the way we engage with language has been profoundly changed by screen-based media and this in turn is influencing language and its evolution.
Which all begs the question: have we reached a pivot point where the way we create language and meaning is changing and at an ever increasing speed? (Think about younger age groups and txt (sic) messaging and how quickly their new ‘rules’ were widely accepted.)
And what does this mean for people like me?
I think this Reading research is going to keep me awake tonight.
Eager to know more?
Reading University press release: Scientists discover oldest words in the English language and predict which ones are likely to disappear in the future
Radio 4 interview with Professor Mark Pagel about the research
CDA’s language pathways White Paper