Obedience, authority, and praying are old news

There aren’t too many aspects of life that haven’t changed in the English-speaking world between the years of 1800 and 2000. Not surprisingly, language in books published in 2000 systematically differs from the language published 200 years earlier. I doubt that many people wrote about emails or the telephone at the turn of the 19th century, just as it seems likely that few people publishing in 1800 wrote about horses and buggies or working as a cooper.

That was then... Image: news.stanford.edu
That was then…
Image: news.stanford.edu
...and this is now. Image: Wikimedia
…and this is now.
Image: Wikimedia


However, the changes that this article mentions were a little more surprising. To detect changes in word frequencies, the author (Greenfield) used Google’s Ngram Viewer, which counts word frequencies in a million books in less than one second. In total, her study looked at about 1,160,000 books published over the 200 year span in the US. When she looked at about 350,000 books published in the UK over the same time span, she found all the same trends in frequencies, which means:

“These replications indicate that the underlying concepts, not just word frequencies, have been changing in importance over historical time.”

Here are some of the words that have increased in usage over time:

  • choose
  • get
  • child
  • unique
  • individual
  • self

And here are some that have decreased:

  • obliged
  • give
  • obedience
  • authority
  • belong
  • pray

Greenfield summarizes her conclusions:

“This research shows that there has been a two-century–long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment.”

To me, the fact that there are cultural shifts and word use shifts are both unsurprising, but the fact that they seem to correlate is pretty interesting. It also suggests that computational methods might be pretty reliable ways to detect meaningful changes in language and behavioral patterns over time.