Thursday, 17 November 2011

Words and the wheel of time

Words fall in and out of favour over time

‘Times may change, but the word times is not changing that much.’ The opening sentence of the researcher Paul Baker’s article invites us to consider how the frequencies of particular words in the English language rise and fall over time. For example, the word change is more than twice as frequent in 2006 as it was in 1931. Some, but certainly not all of this increase can be ascribed to the fact that it occurs in the phrase climate change, which is a recent coinage reflecting a contemporary concern. Baker investigates changes in word frequency in published, written British English sampled from texts in different genres covering the press, general prose, learned articles and fiction. So far, there are four sampling dates: 1931, 1961, 1991 and 2006 – with an earlier date of 1901 in preparation. Baker kicks off his presentation by reporting some intriguing earlier findings, and asks the question ‘Does cultural change lead to linguistic change?’ The clearest examples are in the area of gender and language. For example, the suffixes –ess (e.g. actress) and –ette (e.g. usherette) are used much less now, and there is a marked, but still slow uptake of forms such as spokesperson and chair (for spokesman and chairman). Interestingly, the term Ms is hardly taken up at all, though people do increasingly avoid marking gender in address terms, and this is reflected in a sharp decline in the use of Mr.

What of Baker’s results in this recent study? He finds the greatest increases in the following words: around, health, information, it’s, didn’t, says, social, family, children and need. At first blush, there is no particular pattern here: these words don’t seem to be connected in any way. Baker is able to link this result with previous research, however. For example, need is widely used in sentences such as ‘she needs to finish her essay’, in which need is increasingly used in place of must or has (got) to – a change which has been in progress throughout the 20th century. The appearance of the two forms with apostrophes – it’s and didn’t – is part and parcel of the widespread colloquialisation of formal styles and registers. Baker goes on to explain that the increases in the frequencies of children, family, social and health reflect a cultural shift, with a greater focus on these areas of life than before – without necessarily implying that British society is more family-friendly or healthier now than in the past.

But the data shows other interesting patterns which are not linked to cultural change. Baker focuses on the words round and around, which of course are semantically and functionally closely related. The basic pattern is that around is rapidly gaining ground, at the expense of round. While around shows a sharp increase in use between 1931 and 2006, round shows a steady decline between the same dates.

We might speculate about the reasons for this shift (an Americanism perhaps), but Baker shows that the process is actually quite complex. The two words do not have exactly the same grammatical functions (that is, they don’t behave linguistically in the same way), as the following examples show:

·        Both around and round:
o       Preposition: around the room vs round the room
o       Prepositional adverb: turn around vs turn round

·        around only:
o       Gradable adverb: around a million

·        round only:
o       Noun: round of drinks
o       Adjective: round table

Around appears to be displacing round in the functions where both can occur, i.e. in prepositional functions, but round remains as a noun and an adjective.

Baker’s study shows that the investigation of vocabulary change by means of carefully matched corpora yields results both for the understanding of cultural change (e.g. the reduction in ‘linguistic sexism’ and the growing interest in relationships and social issues), as well as for linguistic change as such, in a way that is not obviously connected to social issues (exemplified by the intriguing changes in around and round).
Baker, P. (2011) 'Times may change but we'll always have money: a corpus driven examination of vocabulary change in four diachronic corpora.' Journal of English Linguistics 39: 65-88.

This summary was written by Paul Kerswill

1 comment:

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