Food & Culture

This Common English Word Is the Next One to Go Extinct, According to Research

There are plenty of hilariously old-timey words silently hiding in the pages of the dictionary. "Skedaddle" and "fuddy-duddy" come to mind. But according to research, the next words to go extinct may be hiding in plain sight.

Old New

Just like plants and animals evolve over time, language does too. How else would words like "groovy" and "bae" pop in and out of existence? In 2009, evolutionary language scientists (yes, that's a thing) from the University of Reading looked at the lifecycle of words to determine the next batch most likely to go extinct. The scientists analyzed the family of Indo-European languages — which include most of the languages spoken throughout Europe and Asia — to see how quickly different words have evolved in order to predict future changes to our vocabulary.

"Fifty percent of the words we use today would be unrecognisable to our ancestors living 2,500 years ago," explained Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading. "If a time-traveller came to us, and told us he wanted to go back to that period, we could arm him with the appropriate phrase book, and hopefully keep him out of trouble." Conversely, it's only logical that plenty of even the most common words we use today will die out in coming years.

You Are the Weakest Word, Goodbye

So which words are on the chopping block next? First in line, apparently, is "dirty." "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," Pagel told the Guardian, citing that he found 46 different words for dirty across the languages analyzed. "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." What will they do when Christina Aguilera's timeless treasure "Dirrty" comes on the radio, we wonder? Maybe that's a question for a different researcher.

Adjectives — like dirty — and adverbs evolve quickly, the researchers found, making them susceptible to dying out and being replaced. Other quickly evolving words are conjunctions and prepositions, like "and," "or," "but," "on," "over" and "against." The words with the most staying power are numerals and nouns. After dirty, some of the other words due for a replacement include "throw," "stick," "guts," and "squeeze." Pagel believes these words could be permanently displaced by new words within 1,000 years. To make these predictions, the researchers applied the theory of evolution through natural selection to the languages, and used the IBM supercomputer ThamesBlue to crunch the numbers. But really, only time will tell if the sentence "Squeeze the dirty guts" will make any sense to our great-great-great-great grandchildren.

Got a love for language? Check out Guy Deutscher's "The Unfolding of Language." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Evolution of Language

Written by Joanie Faletto March 6, 2018

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