Online newspaper archives can help trace changes in language usage
Washington, June 27 (ANI): Experts at Uppsala University in Sweden have shown that changes in language usage-which may make it possible to attain an entirely new degree of precision in dating-can be tracked by using gigantic newspaper archives.
The researchers used historical collections that included everything ever written in a dozen American and British newspapers since they started-which they could access because the material is available electronically these days-for the purpose of their study.
Together, according to them, the news and feature articles, editorials and commercial and classified advertisements contained in the archives comprise tens of billions of words.
In his dissertation in English linguistics, Donald MacQueen has examined the word million in English, especially how language usage shifted from the previously nearly totally dominant "five millions of inhabitants" to today's "five million inhabitants".
He says that the electronic collections of texts, which only recently became available, helped him pin down when and where the modern expression began to take over.
"When you study the occurrence of uncommon words in smaller corpora (text archives) of one or a few million words, you only get a few examples to analyse. These collections are much larger, and they have enabled me to obtain extremely reliable historical data for one year at a time. In this way I have been able to trace the shift with a precision that was not previously possible in linguistic studies," he says.
He said that the study suggested that the modern construction took over in the American newspapers in the middle of the 1880s, and in the British The Times only in the mid 1910s.
The study also showed that the transitional period was shorter in The Times, he added.
These circumstances, according to MacQueen, indicate that usage in American newspapers influenced and accelerated the shift in the British newspaper.
MacQueen further revealed that the shift took place at the height of the British empire, and roughly when the US economy overtook the British for the first time.
"Another discovery I made, thanks to the huge amount of data, is that when the use of the two constructions began to be roughly equal in frequency, the newspapers chose quite simply to avoid using such constructions, writing numeral expressions instead. After World War II, when there was no longer any doubt which construction was the 'right' one, the newspapers reverted to writing number-word expressions again," he says.
The dissertation also includes a comparison with languages like French and German, where the corresponding grammatical shift regarding the word million from being a noun to an ordinary number word has not yet taken place.
"But in the long perspective we can expect this change to occur in those languages as well. The shift is a universal phenomenon when it comes to number words," says MacQueen. (ANI)