The Linguistic Treadmill

New words, new thoughts, new stories, new things.

The Oxford English Dictionary is adding 840 new words (on average) every year! I was surprised to learn that we're creating new language this quickly. The chart above was created to double-check the feeling that, either I'm getting older, or things are changing faster. Turns out I'm probably just getting older.

How fast is language currently replacing itself? 

While the entire OED is 600 thousand words, I remember that an average working vocabulary is closer to 10 thousand words. If all new words were required vocabulary, then the whole of language would be replaced in 12 years. If only 2% of new words were required, then it would still only take 580 years. My answer is that a lot can change in one lifetime.

Is the concise edition any indicator?

The OED Concise edition contains 240 thousand words, 40% of the entire dictionary. Surprisingly large. This subjective size limit is imposed by the limits of printing and distribution. The goal of a dictionary is to answer the most questions, and that means including words most frequently encountered. A subtle indicator of usage frequency, perhaps.

Will we run out of new words?

The permutations of 9 letter words is over 1 trillion,  26! / (26-9)! = 1,133,836,704,000. So if we create 840 new words a year, it would take over a billion years. So, no - the alphabet itself will morph significantly over that span of time. We've only had written languages for a few thousand years.

The Ahiram epitaph in Phoenician
The Ahiram epitaph in Phoenician (c. 1000 BC) 

Wait, we're still creating new alphabets?!

Every June, the Unicode group updates their collection of 137,439 characters. In 2018 they added 46 Mtavruli letters, 5 CJK letters (Chinese/Japanese/Korean), and 66 additional emoji. Even without Unicode support, authors get quite creative trying to type things. They can't be stopped.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Even governments slowly update their official alphabets. For example, most schools recently dropped support for cursive scripts and started teaching qwerty. Although cursive is still widely used in advertising. The Coke logo uses the Spencerian handwriting popular in 1886.

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