In February, Chris looked into the democracy of language, the process by which rules evolve through a general willingness to let errors slide. But how about the reverse: the death of words due to a complete lack of usage? According to linguist Morris Swadesh, the languages of 20,000 years from now will retain just 1% of the core vocabulary of their progenitors. And if researchers at the University of Reading are to be believed, even common words like 'squeeze', 'guts', 'stick', 'throw' and 'dirty' could be on the proverbial chopping block in the not-too-distant future.

A beet to ate

The fact that language is in constant flux should be obvious to anybody who has ever read Early Modern English. You may well understand almost every word in a quote from Hamlet - "Up from my cabin my sea-gown scarfed about me, in the dark groped I to find out them" - but you most likely need to read it twice to grasp (or scarf?) the entire meaning. Go back several centuries to Old English and all recognisability is gone. Against all odds, "Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang, Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in" translates to "Beowulf became the ruler of the Spear-Danes and was beloved by all."

In this constantly changing landscape, words take new forms for cultural reasons. The Great Vowel Shift of 1400 to 1700, for instance, transformed the pronunciation of long vowels, turning words like 'beet' into 'bite' and 'ate' into 'eat'. Hypercorrection (the non-standard use of language due to the over-application of a perceived rule) seems to have played a role in this, but the jury is still out on whether the Middle English were trying to sound more or less French. Language isn't so much passed on from generation to generation as it is slightly rebuilt by each subsequent generation.

Competition for spaces

So, what determines whether a word will evolve with the language or be dropped altogether? According to the researchers in Reading, words are more likely to be replaced the less frequently they're used, hence the probable decline of words with many synonyms like 'dirty' and 'throw'. Some of the most common words in English - 'I', 'we', 'who', 'one', 'two' and 'three' - have absolutely no competition for use in our sentences. In fact, these six words are so old that they share a common origin in most languages from Europe to north India, having been derived from the Proto-Indo-European language spoken from roughly 4500 to 2500 BC.

Of course, it isn't just words with many synonyms that fall by the wayside. Old English had a dual first-person pronoun ('wit'), but we get by just fine today without a dedicated word for 'the two of us'. The globalisation of English is likely to further drive the extinction of highly specific words, especially those not commonly used in other languages. After all, why say 'fortnight' when 'two weeks' gets across the same message? There's also the simple fact that terms become obsolete. While the floppy disk lives on as the save button in Microsoft applications, few individuals born in the twenty-first century will know its name and only those who never had to use one could possibly mourn it.

Feelin' groovy

A notable exception to these general rules is slang, the words which are common in spoken conversation but avoided in formal writing. Much of this has a very short lifespan because of its close association with a particular generation that ceases to be at the forefront of cultural trends - just try to imagine Simon & Garfunkel's 'The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)' being released today as anything other than a parody of hippy subculture. Other slang terms have a regional base too small to effectively pass them on, which the Dictionary of American Regional English has identified in its list of words only recognised by some individuals over 60. The only one familiar to me is 'shat', and I certainly haven't heard it in reference to a pine needle.

And if there's a word you'd really like to see preserved? A possible route - albeit impossible for any single individual - is to change its meaning so that it stays in circulation. 'Bully', for instance, was once a pet name for a loved one or a brother, taking hundreds of years to evolve into its current meaning. 'Cool' managed the transition to a status indicator while retaining its original temperature-related meaning, making it one of the few slang words to be directly taken from standard vocabulary and then become a new standard itself. One thing is clear though. To quote Professor Nick Enfield of Sydney University, "words die when out when they are no longer at the heart of our language."

- Josh