The unrelenting force of evolution is about to take an unexpected toll on the English language by forcing some of our favourite words into extinction. The word “dirty” is most in danger of going the way of the dodo, and could vanish from use completely within 750 years, researchers said.
Next to lose out in the linguistic fight for survival are likely to be the words “guts”, “throw” and “stick”, which could be permanently displaced by new words within 1,000 years, according to a team led by Mark Pagel, a biologist at Reading University, who applied the theory of evolution through natural selection to the family of Indo-European languages, which can be traced back at least 9,000 years.
The study showed that while some words evolved rapidly into new ones, others endured and remained the same for thousands of years.
The oldest words in the language, such as “I”, “we” and the numbers one, two and three, have barely changed over the past 9,000 years, probably because they are so fundamental to everyday communication. The most resilient words were found to be those that are used most frequently, but are also likely to be nouns or numerals.
Other types of words, such as adjectives and adverbs, evolve more quickly, making them susceptible to dying out and being replaced. Half of the words we use today would be unrecognisable to our ancestors 2,500 years ago.
“Based on our statistics, the next word to go under is the word dirty, some time in the next 750 years. It has the most rapid rate of evolution of all of the words we studied,” said Pagel. The languages he looked at had 46 different words for dirty.
“If we were to fast forward 750 years, we expect people will be using a new sound for the concept of dirty. They’ll point to a dirty floor and use a new sound to describe it,” Pagel said.
The research predicts the future of specific words by likening them to genes, which can be passed on faithfully or mutated and modified as time goes by.
“Genes ensure copies of themselves are made by forcing us to have sex and babies. Words are copied when people hear them and repeat them by reproducing the same sound,” said Pagel. “Long-lasting words somehow resist the tendency people have to change them.”
Signs of recent linguistic evolution can be found in most living rooms, where the large object that several people can sit on at once is more likely to be a sofa than a couch, a settee, a davenport or a chesterfield.