The media tends to interpret culture in yearly cycles. Critics publish end-of-year best-of lists and Oxford Dictionaries just selected “post-truth” as its word of the year. But the words we use actually seem to operate on a 14-year cycle, an analysis has found.
Marcelo Montemurro at the University of Manchester, UK, and Damián Zanette at Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research identified 5630 commonly used nouns and analysed how their popularity changed over the last three centuries.
To do this, they wrote computer scripts to dig through Google Ngram, a database of the words used in nearly five million digitised books. They then ranked the nouns in order of popularity and tracked how their rankings changed from 1700 to 2008.
A curious pattern emerged. They found that English words rose in popularity and then fell out of favour in cycles of about 14 years, although cycles over the past century have tended to be a year or two longer. They also found evidence of cycles of this length in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. The popularity of related nouns – such as king, queen and duchess – tended to rise and fall together over time.
Some cycles appear to coincide with historical events. For example, large swaths of words declined in popularity in the years around the world wars. Although the reason for this is unclear, Montemurro thinks it could be related to political trends.
These results support previous work that suggests that language evolves in a patterned way, similar to the way genes are transmitted from parent to offspring, says Mark Pagel at the University of Reading, UK. “Language is not all over the place,” he says. “It’s remarkably consistent.”
However, Pagel says the researchers still need to completely rule out these cycles being a statistical fluke.
“It’s fascinating to look for cultural factors that might affect this, but we also expect certain periodicities from random fluctuations,” he says. “Now and then, a word like ‘apple’ is going to be written more, and its popularity will go up. But then it’ll fall back to a long-term average.”
However, if something does lie behind the cycle, its 14-year duration is puzzling. Some baby names have been found to move in and out of popularity over roughly the length of a human generation. But with nouns, Pagel doesn’t see an obvious cultural connection. “It doesn’t fit the human life history,” he says. “There’s no particular reason why it should be 14 years.”
Montemurro admits that the significance of the cycle’s length remains unclear, but he thinks this is due to more than chance. “It’s very difficult to imagine a random phenomenon that will give you this pattern,” he says.
And he thinks that further study of the cycle could reveal insights about human behaviour and the nature of fashion and trends. “Assuming these patterns reflect some cultural dynamics, I hope this develops into better understanding of why we change the topics we discuss,” Montemurro says. “We might learn why writers get tired of the same thing and choose something new.”
Journal reference: Palgrave Communications, DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.84