Scientists & Google analyze the birth and death of words (from Science Magazine)

Scientists & the Google Book team tasked themselves to uncover what they could learn from an analysis of Google’s online book content from more than 5 million books, dating back to 1800.

Now, I can understand that this may be too esoteric for a lot of folks, but my colleague Kevin Kelley (author of The Home Planet)  passed me this article from Science via Digg, because he knew I loved language and its use.

So I am sharing the link to both Digg’s article, and to a source of the research at Science (for those of you who want the deep stuff and the original papers).

Some neat findings:

  • “Culturomics” is a new word for this kind of work — applying data-crunching techniques to subjects generally considered part of the Humanities.  (Seems that since we can do it now, we will).
  • Turns out English has close to a million words, even though dictionaries carry about 348,000 of them.
  • English grows at about 8,500 words each year, but its rate is slowing.
  • Words in all languages live in a competitive environment, fighting for dominance against synonyms and alternative spellings, and against death (actually, dis-use).
  • Words in any language tend to stabilize within a culture in 30 to 50 years, or else fall into dis-use.  This time frame seems to be a tipping point.
  • Spell-checking and rigorous copy-editors speed up the shift in usage of words and the choice of which will survive.

The article and the source materials explain why these trends are occurring — some fascinating insights.


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