Google shows we're killing our language

Google shows we're killing our language

Summary: The truth is, we're using fewer and fewer words, and Google has the figures to show it.

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TOPICS: Google
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Take heed: those erstwhile folks at Google deem our language is set to falter. Forsooth, we must abide a dialect that is destined to become devoid of imagination.

The truth is, we're using fewer and fewer words, and Google has the figures to show it. Its Ngram project has scanned about 4 per cent of the world's texts, published in English, Spanish and Hebrew, between 1800 and 2008.

Researchers, led by Joel Tenenbaum from Boston University, analysed the texts to discover a dictionary of more than 10 million words, but also found that the amount in use has rapidly declined in recent times. Naturally, historical context has a big part to play — for example, Tenenbaum points to the decline of the term "The Great War" since 1939, when people realised it wasn't really going to be the war to end all wars.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet Australia)

For those with time on their hands, Google's Ngram viewer is an excellent tool for tracking the growth or decline of words used in literature. As you can see, "brood" fell out of favour in the 1950s and we don't "acquiesce" as much as we did in the 1800s.

If you want to test your own vocabulary run your text through this word frequency counter. It shows that there are 169 different words in this article, compared to just 47 in the lyrics to Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head".

It's ironic that Google is the company helping to highlight our ever-shrinking vocal repertoire. Could our drive for keyword density to optimise search be part of the problem?

Topic: Google

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15 comments
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  • No, its the accelerated use of texting and smartphones that is dumbing us down!
    Patanjali
    • A U we iz not dumd down!!
      bob.warfield
  • This is a terrible article. Where's the link to the source? Does the source also assume fewer words make a language worse?

    Let's poke two holes in that argument:
    One, if fewer words means the decline of language, then more words must mean a better language, so the best language would have infinitely many words. That language would of course be utterly useless, so that point is dead.

    Two, as cultures meet (as they tend to in today's more connected society), they will tend to converge toward a single lexicon, eliminating duplicate words with the same meaning. This reduces the number of words in use, yet makes communication better, not worse.
    StealthTomato
    • There are so many holes in this article that it's not funny.

      Firstly, as a statistical analysis, it's pretty slipshod (never mind the irrelevant graph showing decline of "apace" and "brood" - language is changing, quick tell a linguist!)

      The sample relates to books published between 1800 - but really only represents that subset of books which survive, and are of sufficiently high value to have been preserved from the early nineteenth century on. The nature of publishing has changed vastly since that time, with far more books published in the past 50 years being in a more "demotic" register.

      Yes, not only has the language itself changed since 1800, but also the use of language, the social role played by various registers, not to mention the democratisation of publishing would factor largely in any statistical analysis of texts.

      And as any linguist will tell you, language is first and foremost a spoken phenomenon. Written texts never give any more than a subset of that phenomenon - and a very imperfect, self-selected sample, especially the further back in time you go.
      Gwyntaglaw
    • What he said.

      Less words = superior communication. Her Majesty's Finest is very - very - far from being "acceptable", let alone "fine". It's barely functional, but then it was - made - to be that way by creeps who insult you with their 'legalese'. English is inferior to almost every other language I've come across; and I've been all over this wonderful globe of exploitation.

      But that's irrelevant. For all its faults, English is irrefutably the language of the future and has been - irrefutably so - for a very long time now. And yet, I found it almost non-existent in Moscow; there isn't a country in Asia where children are being prepared to communicate with the globe / the future (they speak English in the Philippines the same way they speak Tagalog - whether or not they are communicating effectively [or at all] is another issue altogether); it's hardly spoken on the African continent but that's a place where children are preferred to be seen and not heard (or you'd - hear - a lot more horrifying reports of widespread rapes, slaughters, child slavery and generic exploitation); in Sth America the hatred of US foreign policy since WWII has contributed (perhaps understandably, but not logically) to a seething contempt for English and English-speakers ("We No Speak Americano" - they're not lying, unlike the French who do speaka a 'lil but idiotically wish they didn't); basically everywhere you go, people are so alike it's almost haunting.

      I mean, aside from the 'terrifying' and 'entrenched' differences that are the illusions of 'cultural' differences which are shamelessly brainwashed into the conscious and impressionable minds of children born to PATRIOTIC slaves in every plantation in this illusionary world of 'sovereign-nation-states'; humans are almost terrifyingly alike. But we live in a Westphalian world of insulting and idiotic marketing campaigns of fear, fear, FEAR - get your fear now! It's a world where everyone has an interest in - not - being insane / terrified / dangerous; and yet...the reality is that terrified, borderline-insane humans are dangerous.

      We live in an idiotic world of illusions almost too implausible to be discussed without derision; which is why the most vile people on the planet demand TOLERANCE from you. Tolerate their exploitation of you. That's a good BOY; it's what a good BOY would do on a plantation of many, divided only in the pitiful imaginations of humans who could be impossibly more real than they are, in reality. And as far as illusions of 'reality' goes, ours are idiotic. National borders drawn over imaginary 'barriers', separating humans from - shiver - other humans.

      And so we fight wars that kill 38 million Russian patriots in defence of...Russia's "way of life"? We kill millions of innocent Jewish children and no one cares enough about innocent children to point out the fact that, whilst only Evil would force Sophie to make such a choice or penalise her or her children for her choosing (to limit herself to 0.02% of prospective options) or for her being CHOSEN; the simple fact is that dear Sophie actually already made her 'choice' - and it was her children that weren't being given the opportunity (by Sophie) to choose.

      We imagine ourselves to be good people because we feel 'bad' watching movies like Hotel Rwanda; then we frantically exert monumental efforts attempting to persuade everyone and ourselves that we're - actually - not 'emo' at all! Oh no, that's embarasssing! Being sociopathic is "hot", listening to your emo DNA is "not".

      You're all idiots. We're all idiots. It is our 'right' to be idiotic, if we wish. If you don't want to speak to the world of humans; if you have no desire to communicate with the future; that should be your prerogative. You should be allowed to - choose - to shoot yourself in your moronic feet (if you feel strongly enough about it). But 'your' children? I know you - own - them. But then you think you own your own homes, when you don't have a standing army. You don't even own your own imagination, impulses, instincts or preferences. They've all been GIVEN to you by creeps. You were very young, and very impressionable. You likely don't even remember the creeps who smirked as they ruined your lives when you were happily innocent.

      But creeps aren't nearly as bright as they think they are. And morons are not - nearly - as stupid as they've been led to believe they are; by states which convince the children of Thailand, France, Brazil, Sri Lanka, etc...that they have no interest in playing, trading, communicating with slaves on other plantations - but spend most of their time in 'governance' spamming children (and children who have children of their own) with this hilarious idea that everyone is actually trying to KILL / HURT / RAPE / DECEIVE them.

      Hah.

      As if any human would even have a motive to do anything like that if it weren't for creepy states and creepier religions; all so obsessed with controlling their tiny pockets of exploitation, they're simply too distracted to realise that a) they're miserable, and b) only a moron obsessed with building pyramids has a 'need' or 'desire' to control mindless robotic slaves.

      But the state cares about you. Your religion, really cares about you. Your therapist, your IT specialist, your mechanic, your lawyer, all your friends - they all CARE about you a great deal. They want you to get better. They want to provide solutions for your inexplicable computer 'problems'. They want your automobile to purr. They want you to have no legal problems. They want you to soar and outgrow them. They care about you.

      Your parents cared more than anyone has ever cared about you. It's why they clipped your wings and made you afraid of children who had no motive to bully you or expect to be bullied by you.

      "Love is all that is left to betray." - le Carre

      But this is all too long for you. Too many words, I understand. I tried to make them simpler and easier for you to read. But I apologise that novels don't fit neatly into your smart-phone screen-sized 'reality'. I apologise, on behalf of you, to the victims of your ignorant 'caring' and your - imagined - sociopathic apathy. You should care more about you. If you were selfish, you'd be an impossibly more decent human being.

      But then religion is the definition of exploitation which means you're likely the definition of...inhumane.
      goscuter1
      • As depressing as that all sounds, you do have a point. The sad fact is that the only context that human beings choose to accept is that of other human beings. Whether this is good or bad all depends on the context in question, but with the self-destructive paths that people seem to be taking, I have to admit that I fear for the future of humanity.

        Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt are words that are bandied around a lot these days (here especially, especially when used by political fanatics who mistakenly believe that THEIR favoured government party is there to help everyone, and their opposition is evil), and this stems back to what I mean by human context. Geo-political and sociological analysis aside, the way we are brought up shapes the people that we are, for good and bad. If we are led to believe that THEY are bad (THEY will get you, THEY will hurt you...) and WE are good (WE will protect you, WE will look after you...), then that is how you will see the world. There are some anomalies (again for good or bad) out there, but that is the basic truth.
        dmh_paul
  • Hey, just a moment! A language with infinitely many words would need to have vanishingly small frequency of use for infinitely many of its infinitely many words - so, quite plausibly useful - not useless, depending on the spread of frequency of usage. For example, suppose we admit into the language we call "English" every utterance that has ever been made (such as "oog, oog give me wheel now, with fire!", or ever could be made (such as "fhfhfjfj uuuuuyt!"), but recognise that almost all of them will never be used in any transaction between English speakers. The language remains useful! Ha ha oog oog!
    bob.warfield
  • There seems to have replaced their & they're & few seem to know the difference between quite & quiet so yes, I agree.
    grump-a1eeb
    • I think you'll like this, Grump. I saw a joke poster on Facebook the other day that said "Grammar: the difference between knowing your s*** and knowing you're s***". :)
      anonymous
      • Heh, I caught wind of that one as well. Sad but true, but I know of many people that could do with a smack across the chops with that simple statement.
        dmh_paul
  • Spelling errors, grammar, |3375P33K, and short-handed text (don't know the exact terminology, but I'm looking at words like LOL, ROFL, OMFG and so on) notwithstanding, I think that the decline on the use of words points to a more streamlining of the language rather than decline.

    Yea and verily... words like these don't really have much of a place in our modern world, and rightly so. Words like these harken (another word that has all but disappeared off the verbal map) back to the middle ages or possibly further (or not; I'm no historical linguist) and have probably been used steadily lesser since then.
    dmh_paul
    • "historical linguist" - I like that.

      History books in every nation are not written by the winners. History is, and has always been, written by each dialects' linguists. They lie...fluently.
      goscuter1
      • Of course they lie. No-one would really read a boring truth, so like a movie they cut parts out and change a handful of details, so that they skip the 247,958 steps that the armies marched across an otherwise uninteresting plain, and go straight to the epic battle scenes which the hero (of course) wins. Oh yeah, some other soldiers were there, too.
        dmh_paul
  • they probaly always lie about in4mation bout people
    rt luvs youh
  • fyi google may always lie
    rt luvs youh