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  • English may run out of words

    English, perhaps the biggest, most influential world language ever, is showing some signs of coming apart at the seams, according to evolutionary biologists at Reading University, who are predicting that a number of the English words you probably used today, common ones like dirty, bad, and turn, may go extinct over the next 700 – 800 years.

    Mark Pagel and his bioinformatics team fed millions of words into their supercomputers and discovered that the most stable words in English and other modern Indo-European languages are the numbers two, three, and five, and the pronouns I, thou, and who. Pagel estimates that they are up to 20,000 years old and not likely to disappear any time soon.

    Of course English itself has only been spoken for about 1,500 years, and while thou still exists as tu in French and du in German, and might indeed be among the oldest words in an Indo-European ancestor which Pagel dates at 30,000 BCE, thou has been pretty much nonexistent among English speakers for some time now. Even Quakers, who held onto the word a couple of centuries after other English speakers abandoned it in favor of you, have taken thou off life support.

    Nonetheless Pagel remains optimistic that a small core vocabulary of a couple of hundred words is all we need to understand one another.  He told a BBC interviewer, "If a time-traveller came to us, and told us he wanted to go back to that period [the Stone Age], we could arm him with the appropriate phrase book, and hopefully keep him out of trouble."

    That time traveler might need a lot more than Pagel's 206-word "English for Dummies" to communicate with cave men.  King Arthur lived a lot more recently than the Neanderthals, but Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee needed the contents of a good-sized collegiate dictionary to get on at Camelot, and even C. K. Ogden's misguided attempt to reduce the half million words of modern English to an essential, easy-to-learn core produced an 850-word list of "Basic English."  The vocabulary of the average American high school graduate is estimated to be between 40,000 and 60,000 words, which is a lot more words that Pagel would put in his time machine, but then again, the average Stone Ager was not a high school graduate, King Arthur probably spoke Celtic, not English, and the average time traveler doesn't even exist yet.

    With or without a phrasebook, Pagel thinks it may be a miracle that we understand anything we say to one another at all. He told the BBC, "50% of the words we use today would be unrecognisable to our ancestors living 2,500 years ago." And he added, "If you've ever played 'Chinese whispers', what comes out the end is usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity." [In the U.S. we call this children's game by a less racially-charged name, telephone.]

    Perhaps this potential for misunderstanding may account for another phenomenon that Pagel has discovered: the incredible shrinking English vocabulary. According to Pagel, English consists of old words, which are very stable, not likely to change in the future, and newer ones, words whose future is doubtful. Our number words are old, but even among the single digits, some numbers are older than others Pagel claims that one and four, while admittedly common, are not as long-lived as 2, 3, and 5. As for pronouns, while he declares who to be ancient, Pagel is silent on the status of whom, a word which usage critics have been declaring dead for at least 200 years, but which, like a zombie, still pops up from time to time to scare us.

    But Pagel is willing to predict that, based on his complex statistical calculations, extremely common words like and and but, always among the 100-commonest English words, are actually unstable and likely to disappear at some future date. Worse still, reasonably common terms like bad, dirty, squeeze, stick and gut are not simply too new to be stable, they may already be on their way out. Pagel predicts that these words, along with push, throw, turn, wipe, and stab, are among those with a half life of 750 years.

    Even this may be good news. Although since the U.N. is predicting that half the world's languages may go extinct by the end of the century, Pagel's calculations suggest that despite the fact that the current vocabulary downturn won't end any time soon, English will surely outlive half the world's languages by a good chunk.

    Picture of Mark Pagel, alongside a body of water 

    Observing evolution in action: Reading University's Mark Pagel waits patiently for fish to crawl up onto dry land so that he can record the words they use when that happens.

    Pagel and his co-authors may be astute manipulators of statistics, but they're biologists, not linguists, and while they have some strong street creds in biological evolution, they have little grasp of the realities of language change. For example, last year Atkinson, Pagel et. al., claimed that languages evolve suddenly, at key "punctuational bursts" in time, giving this example: "American English emerged abruptly when Noah Webster introduced his American Dictionary of the English Language, insisting that 'as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government' " (Science 319 [Feb. 1, 2008]: 588).

    In fact, American English emerged only gradually as a distinct variety of English, and far from creating "American" with the stroke of a pen, Webster himself was just posturing when he made the above claim in his Dissertations on the English Language (1789, p. 20), 17 years before he published his first dictionary in 1806, and 39 years before the appearance of  Webster's two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). By 1824, while still researching his "big" dictionary, the lexicographer and ardent patriot had already backed away from his push for a separate American English and began arguing just as forcefully that the English in Britain and the States were virtually identical, with only a handful of words not shared in common (see Webster's letters [1953], p. 412).

    Plus, Pagel's website illustrating his time-traveler's word list is currently inoperative, and visitors to the site are greeted with this message:

    Words to use through time.

    This web page has been removed temporally.
    Please check back soon.

    Temporally?  Perhaps on Darwin's bicentennial this focus on language evolution is getting out of hand.

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