Study reveals words’ Darwinian struggle for survival

From The Guardian:

Old-wooden-letters-007Words are competing daily in an almost Darwinian struggle for survival, according to new research from scientists in which they analysed more than 10 million words used over the last 200 years. Drawing their material from Google's huge book-digitisation project, the international team of academics tracked the usage of every word recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the 209-year period between 1800 and 2008.

The scientists, who include Boston University's Joel Tenenbaum and IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies' Alexander Petersen, said their study shows that “words are competing actors in a system of finite resources”, and just as financial firms battle for market share, so words compete to be used by writers or speakers, and to then grab the attention of readers or listeners. There has been a “drastic increase in the death rate of words” in the modern print era, the academics discovered. They attributed it to the growing use of automatic spellcheckers, and stricter editing procedures, wiping out misspellings and errors. “Most changes to the vocabulary in the last 10 to 20 years are due to the extinction of misspelled words and nonsensical print errors, and to the decreased birth rate of new misspelled variations and genuinely new words,” the scientists write in their just-published study. “The words that are dying are those words with low relative use. We confirm by visual inspection that the lists of dying words contain mostly misspelled and nonsensical words.” But it is not only “defective” words that die: sometimes words are driven to extinction by aggressive competitors.

More here.

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