Unsurprisingly, a lot’s changed since the 1500s, not least of all language. But now a physicist has crunched through 5.2 million books published over five centuries in order to analyse the way the English language has changed over time.
There is, of course, one constant: by far and away the most popular word throughout history is the humble definite article “the”. No surprise there, as it’s an indispensable classic.
Dig around into short phrases, however, and things get more interesting. Back in 1520, the most popular three-word phrase was “of the Pope”. Not so these days, because it’s been superseded by the more useful, but rather more boring, string “one of the”.
Extend the length of phrase to five letters, and a similar pattern emerges. favourites from the 1520s remain heavily religious, including “the Pope and his followers”, “the laws of the Church” and “the body and blood of Christ”, while modern-day diction remains dull, offering up the likes of “at the end of the”, “in the middle of the” and “on the other side of”.
So, we may be less religious, but we’re also rather more boring. One last little nugget: over the last century the words “United States” have become increasingly common. Which isn’t surprising, but is at the least heartwarming.
In fact, over the last two centuries the English language seems to have plateaued according to Matjaž Perc, the physicist behind the research. While changes were dramatic in the 16th and 17th centuries, things have now reached an even keel. Compare that to many other languages, which are still in flux, and English is ahead of the game. [Royal Society Interface via New Scientist]
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