Science makes an open book of English evolution

July 25, 2012

"The United States of America" has become entrenched as one of the most frequently printed phrases in the modern era of written English, a study of 500 years of language evolution has shown.

Among the top dozen phrases most-printed in books every year, this one stands out from the other most popular five-word sentence components like "at the end of the", "as a result of the" or "on the part of the".

"'The United States of America' tops the charts quite remarkably if one ignores the more common and by themselves inherently meaningless phrases," Slovenian physicist Matjaz Perc who conducted the research, told AFP.

Perc had made a digital analysis of some 5.2 million books dating from 1520 to 2008, and showed the language going through an erratic period heavily influenced by religion in the 16th and 17th centuries -- a time when is also claimed to have coined many and phrases.

The printing press was invented in about 1440, spreading rapidly throughout Europe and then beyond.

"During the 16th and 17th centuries, the (of words) was very fleeting," Perc found. His study was published Wednesday in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

"Top words in the year 1600, for example, are no longer top words in the year 1610."

From the 18th and 19th centuries, word rankings became increasingly stable.

"The words that are most common during the year 1950, for example, are also the most common even today," said Perc, who claimed his covered about four percent of all books published up to 2008.

Driven by about a known as "preferential attachment", the physicist's analysis led him to compile extensive tables of English words and phrases.

They show the word "the" right at the top of the list throughout the centuries, followed by others like "and", "of", "to", "in" and "a" at varying rankings near the top.

In the 1500s and 1600s, however, "baptized", "hymns", "God", "Christ" and "" also featured prominently among the most-used words, as well as phrases like "baptized in the name of", or "God forbid it should be".

Oddly out of place in the number one spot in 1586: the phrase "A fine old English gentleman".

Phrases like "House of Commons" and words like "Queen" and "Duke" started climbing the list by the mid- to late 17th century.

Top phrases in the 1700s included "the Church of England", "the Law of Nature" and "the Orb of the Sun".

By the 1800s the pattern started looking more as it does today, with formulaic phrases like "at the same time" or "in the midst of" featuring most prominently.

In 1919, the year after World War I ended, the ninth most-published five-word phrase was "for extraordinary heroism in action".

Since 1968, Perc's tables show "the United States of America" consistently among the top 15 most-published phrases, up from the top 20-odd in the 1940s and 50s.

"It seems that the words and phrases we use for writing books have matured, which in turn invites the conclusion that the English language itself is matured over the years," said Perc.

"Today we know what to expect when opening up a book, much more so than we would have if opening a book in the 16th century.

"This of course does not pertain to the content of each book, which will hopefully always surprise us, but rather to the grammatical constructions and certain that have endured the test of time and are today commonplace."

Explore further: 'World searches' - most popular searches on Cambridge Dictionaries and the reasons behind them

Related Stories

2009: the Year of Twitter

November 30, 2009

The year has not yet ended but Microsoft says "Twitter" was among the top searches of 2009 on its new search engine Bing and a company which monitors language has crowned it the top word of the year.

New mathematical model to enable web searches for meaning

September 26, 2011

( -- A new theory of meaning has the potential to revolutionise many artificial intelligence technologies and enable web searches that interpret the meaning of queries, according to its developer, a computer scientist ...

Shakespeare's skill 'more in grammar than in words'

January 30, 2012

William Shakespeare's mastery of the English language is displayed more in the grammar he used than in his words, according to a researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jul 25, 2012
It should be expected that the phrase would be oft-repeated during the time of the American empire. Expect to see more mention of China in coming years.
not rated yet Jul 25, 2012
English is used in other contexts than printed books. This study is only a measure of how English has changed over time in books.
Has the Internet, for instance, had any effect? The lifetime of some words and phrases used today is so short, they probably don't make it into too many books, but are nevertheless represented in other media.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2012
The article doesn't discuss bias in the printing or preservation of books, a hugely important factor particularly in the oldest texts. I presume that most early texts were religious in nature, for example, and were perhaps also more likely to be preserved than the 16th century version of a travel guide.

Consequently, if this study was simply a number count, I'm not certain what the "study" "proves", if anything.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.