Researchers at the University of Los Angeles have been looking at usage of English words. They fed 1.5 million English-language books into Ngram Viewer, a tool that catalogues phrase usage, and to counted the frequency of word use.
This shows that over the last 200 years there has been an ever-increasing use of particularly acquisitive words: “get”, “unique”, “individual”, “self”, “choose”. Over the same period use of “give” and “obliged” decreased.
For the researchers, this shows the results of the English-speaking countries moving from “a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, hi-tech society”. Or to put it another way, English has been influenced by capitalism.
Does this necessarily follow? I’m not so sure.
Are books a good source for the data to reach this type of conclusion? I understand that they are the easiest source. Feeding other written material from 200 years ago into a computer doesn’t sound much fun, but in those days producing a book was no easy matter. It is therefore likely that the language in a book from those times doesn’t reflect the language of every day as they do now. For a long time there has been a general trend for the written word to be less formal. And anyway, technological developments mean that almost all of us could produce some form of book these days quite easily.
There are other problems with this deduction:
- “Get” is a more common word now. It is used in completely different contexts. Twenty years ago you didn’t hear people in shops asking “Can I get a …” where earlier they might have said “Please may I have…”, or a more concise “Two coffees, please.” The modern form isn’t more acquisitive, or less polite. It is probably just another passing trend. Sayings like “I totally get that,” or “The part I don’t get is…” certainly don’t seem to have much bearing on capitalism.
- “Give” is an interesting one. Now I come to think of it, I don’t remember hearing anyone talking about giving a vote of thanks, or giving a show or a dance in the village hall. These days people make presentations & put on events.
- I suspect the increase in the use of “unique” is due to the broadening of our horizons. Many people spent their whole lives in their home town or village 200 years ago. These days, even those of us who haven’t moved house have usually travelled overseas.
- The one that made me laugh is “obliged”. I don’t think that this has been a common word at any point in my lifetime. The researchers obviously see it as a word that involves helping people in a selfless way. I am aware of it in some very different contexts:
- I’ve got some books on old business methods, including some model letters. Many of them use the phrase “I should be obliged if you would” where we would write “please”. It comes up in orders for goods & service, requests for tradesmen to visit, and making appointments. All pretty similar to what goes on now.
- Listening to a dramatisation of the Sew Wolf on the radio last night reminded me that “I’m much obliged” was used when we now say “Thank you”.
- If you watch old films, or listen to re-runs of radio programmes you will hear people say they are going somewhere to oblige, meaning I am going to that house to work as a cleaner.
- If you listen to Noel Coward’s son “Would you please oblige us with a Bren gun” it is pretty clear that he means “Please send”. And what has that got to do with the advance of capitalism?
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