All languages change over time, and English is no exception. Now, a physicist at the University of Maribor in Slovenia has used a computer program to analyse the text of 5.2 million books published since 1520, to find out how language use has changed over the centuries.
The results lead to a couple of interesting observations. First of all, the Reformation and the Enlightenment seem to have had a huge impact on the most commonly used English words and phrases. For example, the New Scientist notes that in 1520, “of the Pope” was the most common three word phrase. In 2008, it was “one of the.”
Likewise, some of the most frequently used five- word phrases in the 1500’s were “the Pope and his followers”, “the laws of the Church” and “the body and blood of Christ.” These have been replaced by prepositional phrases like “”at the end of the”, “in the middle of the” and “on the other side of”. Simply put, we’re not as religious as we once were. Or at least, our literature isn’t.
As Lifehacker observed, you would think that the rise of the Internet would lead to another burst of evolution in our language use, especially with all the new tech buzzwords being added to Oxford English Dictionary and the longstanding linguistic debate over the effects of text messaging. However, that’s actually not the case.
As Professor Perc explained to the Australian:
“It seems that the words and phrases we use for writing books have matured, which in turn invites the conclusion that the English language itself is matured over the years. Today we know what to expect when opening up a book, much more so than we would have if opening a book in the 16th century.”
I’d always heard that English was one of the hardest languages to learn, but Professor Perc told the New Scientist that its linguistic stability could actually make it easier to master than a language that’s still in flux:
“If phrases reappear in a book, it’s easier to follow. In China, where globalisation is still taking place, there’s still a lot of change in the language, and that probably makes it harder to learn.”