The Internet Isn’t Changing The English Language As Quickly As You Might Imagine

The Internet Isn’t Changing The English Language As Quickly As You Might Imagine

I’ll be the first to argue that the internet has ruined everyone’s ability to spell, but we can easily overestimate the effect that being online has on our language and presume wrongly that the rate of change today is faster than ever before. Research conducted at the University of Slovenia suggests that word frequency for the most common phrases in English was much more variable 500 years ago than in the present day.

The study by Dr Matjaz Perc examined a large corpus of text, claimed to be 4 per cent of all books ever published since the sixteenth century, to see if they conformed to Zipf’s Law. In simple terms, Zipf’s law suggests that the most frequent word in a natural language will be twice as common as the second-most frequent, which will in turn be twice as common as the third-most frequent, and so on. The same pattern is seen in many other environments, including how the web has grown and how we acquire new friends.

Zipf aside, the interesting observation from the new research is that these popularity rankings did not stabilise until printed books became extremely common. Tracking the most common words and phrases shows far more deviation in the early years of the printed word:

During the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, popularity was very fleeting. Phrases that were used most frequently in 1520, for example, only intermittently succeeded in re-entering the charts in the later years.

However, that ranking had become very stable by the turn of the twentieth century, with frequent words remaining much more fixed (though not quite absolute). We don’t yet have enough data to rank how online usage might change those rankings (if indeed it does). Undoubtedly being online is changing some of our linguistic habits, but relative to the history of written language, we’re still in a stable period.

You can check rankings of the popularity of terms over the past four hundred years on Perec’s site.

Evolution of the most common English words and phrases over the centuries [Journal Of The Royal Society Interface]


  • The bloody dictionary. The worst invention in the entire history of the human race is the reason why our language has not evolved. I had to explain last night to my young son that sergeant really is spelled like that. Could not offer a decent reason why.
    Destroy every single one and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Wrong Rollz, our language has evolved very rapidly over the last few hundred years or so. If you were to go back in time, even 100 years, you would have a hard job communicating because the language was quite different. The reason you couldn’t explain to your son why ‘sergeant’ was spelt that way, was simply that you hadn’t made the effort to find out – not because there is no reason. There is a good reason, as any linguist will tell you.

      • Sorry, but a quick wiki ref indicates the Oxford was released 1928, so yeah, until then English was evolving rapidly. Has it evolved rapidly since the advent of a widely disseminated dictionary?
        I do not know any good linguists, pray tell why sergeant is spelt with an ‘e’.?

        • Uggh, I just realised your going to spout an evolution of the word from its origins, not why is should be spelt ‘sargeant’, or “sargent’ or even ‘sarjent’ as it is pronounced.

          • Uggh, I just realised that you spelled “you’re” as “your”, and “it” as “is”.

            Help, this language is evolving too fast for me to keep track!

    • If you have a good dictionary with etymological references then it shows you exactly how the language has evolved.

      If you want a dictionary that “democratically” reflects current spelling of English, then you’d better buy one that’s designed for the Chinese, Indian or American markets as they’ve got a lot more adherents than any written dialect of English.

        • You know, generally when you assert something as fact, you have to support it with some kind of evidence. Otherwise its what is known as an opinion.

          • This is a comments section, not a scientific paper. I will put my money where my mouth is though and say that the rate of evolution of current English words has significantly decreased with the advent of the modern, widely available dictionary. $ 100 on it. Happy for anyone to prove me wrong.

  • The larger the body of work written in ‘standard’ english, the more everybody reads standard english, and the more they write in standard english – both to be understood and because it’s what they know. News corporations write very neutrally so the same text can be used world wide, and the same goes for most people who make a living online. They’d be narrowing their potential audience if they didn’t.

    Evolution works fastest in small, isloated groups. Right now we’re merging everybody into the biggest language groups in history, so there’s a lot of inertia for changes to fight against.

    • +1. Well said.

      Although I’ve always been a good speller, my increased exposure to US English, especially after working in the States for years now means I’ve lost my intuition as to which variant spelling to use in many cases. I know the variants exist but unless I was writing for a specific audience, it really doesn’t seem to matter so more. We surf from site to site where the author’s background and readership varies with respect to orthographic history and preferences.

      I also find that embedded spell-checkers in browsers will frequently flip away from what I’ve set them to be, so unless you’re vigilantly pedantic, it’s a losing battle.

  • I’d be interested in seeing a version that didn’t take into account capitalisation.
    In the years above, word 1, is essentially the same word as 12, 14 and 15 in the three columns respectively.

  • This definitely makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A lot more of our written communication is incidental these days, whereas in the past would have been (generally) of a much more serious nature and by those of a higher IQ (again, generally). What I think the internet and technology in general will have done, is speed up the addition of new words to the English language.

  • Sorry, Angus. My spelling is unaffected by Internet use. My exposure to bad spelling, however, has never been higher. I don’t expect everyone is equally good at spelling – I tend to think it’s something you’re either good at, or you’re not. However, a little care in posting wouldn’t hurt in some cases.

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