Tracking the Evolution of English

Ever wonder what the most commonly used word in the English language is? Hint: It’s also the most commonly used word in this paragraph: “the.”

That not-so-surprising fact comes from Slovenian physicist Matjaž Perc’s recently published study of the evolution of the English language over the past 500 years. Thanks to Google’s work digitizing millions of books published since the early 16th century, Perc was able to run data analysis on 5.2 million texts through an algorithm, isolating commonly used words and phrases.

Interestingly, the popularity of that simple definite article — the most commonly used word in both 1520 and 2008 — is one constant in an area that has seen tremendous change throughout the centuries.

Tracking the Evolution of English
Tracking the Evolution of English

For example, in 1520, the most popular three-word phrase was “of the pope.” How often do you hear or read that term these days?

In fact, seven of the 10 most popular three-word phrases in 1520 were related to religion:

  • of the pope
  • the canon law
  • of the German
  • of the Church
  • the German nation
  • the pope and
  • the pope has
  • to the pope
  • there is no
  • that the pope

However, the top 10 most popular phrases at the turn of the millennium was quite a different list:

  • as well as
  • one of the
  • the United States
  • part of the
  • in order to
  • the end of
  • a number of
  • the fact that
  • in terms of
  • the use of

Perc’s analysis, published last month in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, demonstrates that popular phrases maintain their statuses far longer than they used to:

“During the 16th and 17th centuries, the popularity [of words] was very fleeting,” Perc told Agence France-Press. “Top words in the year 1600, for example, are no longer top words in the year 1610.”

By the 1800s, however, the pattern started looking more similar to today’s — and change comes much more slowly now. The 2000 group is virtually identical to the lists that have followed in subsequent years — and to those that preceded it for several decades.

Perc’s work also should provide some comfort to linguists who are horrified by the way technology — specifically textese — has altered our use of language. While the Internet and smartphones may have ruined our ability to spell, they aren’t rapidly warping the integrity of the English language as a whole. Yet.

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