Language evolution: when did we stop “making love” and start “having sex”?

December 5, 2017

The other day my 11 year old Portuguese niece begged me to help her out with her English homework. She had written a short essay and she asked if I could go over it. I couldn’t help but notice her very first sentence: “I waked up at 7am to go to school.”

When I asked her what was wrong with it she immediately replied: “waking up at 7am, that’s way too early for me.”

Close enough, I thought, but not exactly.

I then told her she got the verb conjugation wrong: “It’s not ‘I waked up’, but, ‘I woke up’”. She looked confused. “The verb ‘wake’ is irregular”, I explained.

As she stared at the long list of irregular verbs in her textbook, I kept on wondering about these ‘irregularities’ within language.

Irregular verbal movements

The English language has more than 300 irregular verbs and they are so frequent that, when you use a verb, there is a 50% chance that it will be irregular.

But, will this ever change? I mean we did use to say “I holp you” instead of “I helped you”, and the New York Times did publish a headline in 1924 where they said “throve” and not “thrived”.

It’s very common for language to change over time, but understanding when it changes and why, is less so. Can we say for certain that there is a trend for irregular verbs to become regular? If that happens with verbs what about words or expressions?

Although Unbabel employs a number of very talented linguists, I’m definitely not one of them, but this was keeping me awake at night. So, I grabbed a book called “The Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture”, written by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, from the shelf and gave it a read.

The book takes a look at the use of huge amounts of digital information to track changes in language, culture and history — they call it “culturonomics.” The authors explain how they partnered up with Google to create something called the Ngram Viewer which is a tool that instantly analyses all the books written between 1800 and 2008 in Google’s digital library, the biggest in the world with more than 30 million books. Through this amazing and highly-addictive tool you can understand how often a word is used, when it disappeared, compare it with other words, and so on.

Will we ever ‘regularize’ the situation?

Regularization is what linguists have called the process of an irregular verb becoming regular, and, apparently, once that happens, there is no going back. However, despite the “irregularities” these verbs are very frequent and therefore easy to remember. That’s why most linguists predict that the verbs we frequently use will most likely stay irregular, opposed to those we rarely use.

This is somewhat of a natural selection. Stronger verbs will survive in their natural form (for up to 12 centuries) and the weaker ones will adapt. That’s why “throve” disappeared and “drove” still remains, because the second verb is much more more frequently used. As seen below, it was in the mid-1930s that “thrived” began to thrive more than “throve.”

So what casualties await us? According to many linguists the verb “wed” will most likely become “wedded” in a very near future. Ring the bells!

A sexual revolution in the Summer of Love

But, if verbs change what about common expressions?

When did we start to have ‘mixed feelings’? Why did we start looking at the ‘near future’? When did things ‘get out of hand’? Or when did we have the ‘best of both worlds’? How about ‘having sex’ vs ‘making love’?

You can see that by 1994 lovemaking reached its peak (quiet there, you in the back), while sex began to rise in the 1960s and eventually took over in the early 2000s. I guess the countercultural “sexual revolution” had its intended effect! Traditional codes of behaviour relating to sexuality were clearly turned upside down from the Summer of Love onwards.

In the decades that followed, the frequency of the word “sex” increased. We started talking about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, a certain TV show called ‘Sex and the City’ aired in the US and around the world.

Here are a few more examples:

“Mixed feelings”

“Get out of hand”

“Best of both worlds”

“Language isn’t only changing, it’s growing!”

Frenemy, YOLO, bromance, clickbait, crowdfund, binge-watch, Brexit — all new words added to our dictionaries over the last decade to name just a few.

Between 1950 and 2000, English, which had stabilized as a language since 1900, entered a new period of growth; just looking at the last decade that’s even more so. According to Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel we currently have about 8,400 new words entering the English language each year.

On the one hand we are removing the complexities of language through continued usage, but we just can’t stop adding new words to our vocabulary.

Why? Quite possibly because we are more connected to, and communicate with, each other more than ever before. Language is a reflection of the way we see and understand the world around us. As our perceptions change, so too does the language we use to describe them.

Read next: Why we’re building universal understanding with Unbabel

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