Researchers tap supercomputers to find interesting language trends

  • London (England) - Researchers have identified the oldest words in the English language to be the words I, we and who, along with the numbers 1, 2 and 3. These are among the oldest words in all Indo-European languages, according to the report. They also claim such fundamental words as squeeze, guts, stick, throw and dirty are all heading for "history's dustbin," along with a host of others.

    IBM was able to use their ThamesBlue supercomputer, now one year old, to take the previously thought hard-limit of 5,000 year old language fundamentals all the way back to 30,000 years. The previous computers available took six weeks on average to compute a computational task relating the disparate language histories. With ThamesBlue, the same tasks completes in only a few hours.

    Because of the increase, they've been able to analyze the entire family of Indo-European languages and "reconstruct the rate at which words evolve and predict future changes to our vocabulary. The oldest words we use today have been in existence for at least 10,000 years," according to the researchers.

    Over time the evolution of languages shows the numbers evolve the slowest, followed in this order by nouns, verbs, adjectives with conjunctions and prepositions evolving the fastest. Some words, such as over and against have shown an evolutionary pattern more than 100x faster than numbers.

    The research has also predicted half-lives of certain words, such as throw, which has a half-life of 900 years. Researchers also point out the diversity of language, such as the word throw having 42 unrelated sounds used to convey it across all languages.

    Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading, said, "50% of the words we use today would be unrecognisable to our ancestors living 2,500 years ago. If a time-traveller came to us, and told us he wanted to go back to that period, we could arm him with the appropriate phrase book, and hopefully keep him out of trouble."

    This evolving word trend is also being affected today by the permanent printed media and recorded broadcasts. We now have a great oracle at our disposal, which is Google and the other search engines. These tools allow us to research and find information quickly that was not possible even 10 or 15 years ago. The reality is that as these forms of man's knowledge are laid into a manner which can be directly described by the original author, rather than being handed down through verbal tradition, its impact on long-term trends will be pronounced.

    See IBM's press release.


    It's interesting to watch very old movies made back when sound was first introduced (the "talkies"), such as The Great Dictator with mega-star Charlie Chaplan in his first full speaking role. These old movies convey a dialogue and word use which is often foreign to us today, being far more technical and precise with less slang.

    "The Gay 90s" referred to a lesser used meaning of the word "gay" (which still exists even in society today), one describing the 1890s as being a very happy, prosperous time for people. The word "shan't" (contraction of "shall not") is found in many turn-of-the-century (1900) books, newspapers and early recorded broadcasts, however it's rarely used today being instead replaced with "won't". Also, in general the word "shall" isn't used very often at all. "I shall be coming over later" is replaced with "I'll be over later."

    In reading the United States Constitution, drafted 233 years ago, several words have changed meaning over time. The second amendment includes the phrase "well regulated militia," though it does not refer to its current meaning in modern society -- which would indicate lots of rules and regulations governing it, but instead referred to a wide, ready-to-go militia, one which is self-sufficient and capable, something along the lines of the Minutemen. This small change in meaning has affected many people's ideas about the 2nd amendment because the etymology of the word is not researched, but only its current meaning. It reduces the reality of intent behind the framers, and limits us today in what they had in mind.

    Even the preamble to the Constitution contains the phrase "a more perfect Union," which while also meaning "more perfect" in its modern definition that things are closer to being as they should, referred more at the time to the Biblical use of the word "perfect," which means "complete" or "whole," as in not lacking anything in a given discipline.

    Words are always changing. In 2006 the word "google" was officially added to the dictionary, which describes the act of looking something up online (by Google or other source). And think of the phrases introduced since the advent of the Internet: Email, browser, home page, blog. And even in computers, the word "Xeon" did not mean anything before Intel came along. And how many English speakers used the word "Duo" prior to Intel introducing it.

    To quote Butthead from the hit MTV show Beavis and Butthead, "Uhh... werds. heh heh heh heh heh heh." Oh, the humanity.