Has the rate of vocabulary change (that is, number of words falling out of use per decade, say) been found to be largely constant in human societies or does it strongly depend on circumstances?

If writing happens to be a major factor, has this rate been largely constant before the advent of writing?

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    Is it even possible to judge rates of word usage prior to the advent of writing?
    – rintaun
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 11:25
  • @rintaun It is difficult, but people with writing can study people without writing. Also, some common words can be tracked, if an language does not use a certain word from its own language family.
    – Phira
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 11:30
  • When a language dies, vocabulary change stops completely. If dead and dying languages are to be considered together with the living then by definition it strongly depends on circumstances. If not, you must edit your question.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 11:42
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    @thei. You might be interested in the debate about [modified] glottochronology. Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 16:45

2 Answers 2


Contra @JoFrhwld, it's not really that controversial to say that the rate of cognate replacement differs in different languages, or in different parts of the vocabulary. Glottochronology has a bad name in linguistics for exactly this reason: the assumption of constant rates of change made by glottochronology is clearly shown to be wrong when the methods are tried out on languages with known histories. Icelandic is a classic example: glottochronology calculates many fewer years separation between modern Icelandic and Old Norse than we know to be the case from the historical record.

I would recommend you actually read the article referred to in JoFrhwld's answer if you're interested in this: Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history (Nature) and also try Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts (Science). It's pretty lame to criticize a paper on the basis of your evaluation of the reputation of the journal or the disciplinary affiliation of the authors when you haven't even read the paper! These papers give a clear quantitative demonstration of a couple of the factors that influence the rates of language change, things which were only described qualitatively before.

As to societal differences, Lupyan and Dale give at least some hard data that language structure is partly determined by social structure Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure (PLoS ONE). There's good evidence that language change occurs faster in smaller populations, because it's easier for an innovation to diffuse across the entire population, exactly the same way that genetic innovations are more likely to fixate in small populations than big ones.

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    I disagree that it's "lame" to point out that certain journals have a bad track record of publishing quality linguistics articles; indeed, it is the foundation of the peer-review/reputation system. Mark Liberman – a phonologist/phonetician if ever there was one – has critiqued another Science paper (and one from Nature) for glossing over some basic linguistic facts; there is no reason to think that the journals have since tightened up their review standards.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 0:25
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    I haven't read the other papers yet, but the "Punctuational Bursts" one is quite short, and seems to be fatally flawed. Their argument is that languages that are differentiated by a greater number of "language-splitting events" have a higher degree of lexical dissimilarity. Of course, the property that leads linguists to posit a "language split" (especially in the historical record, where detailed grammatical evidence is not available) is lexical divergence. So the argument is entirely circular.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 0:37
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    Liberman's commentary you cite is critical, but only in the technical sense that he engages with the arguments and discusses their merits and faults. He is sceptical, but positive and constructive. This is what science is meant to be like! I don't see any criticism (in the other sense) of the review standards of Science or Nature. Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 6:44
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    re. Punctuational bursts: linguists posit language splits on the basis of regular sound change, which is (at least logically) independent of the rate of lexcal replacement. Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 6:50
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    A good introduction for linguists is Greenhill and Gray 2009. The 'tree sample' isn't something to worry about: it's an honest admission that we can have greater or lesser degrees of confidence about different aspects of a phylogenetic hypothesis. Traditional historical linguistics doesn't deal with this at all well. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 9:27

Instead of talking about words falling out of use, how about we talk about "cognate replacement" (there's a good search term for you). So, in English, we say to walk and in Italian they say ambulare. These two words have very different histories, so we'd call them different cognates. In English, we have a less commonly used verb to ambulate, which is cognate with Italian ambulare.

Now, let's take two more closely related languages, Italian and French. Italian's word for "to walk" is ambulare, and in French it's marcher. These two language are both descendent from Latin, which used ambulare for "to walk". So at some point, French replaced its word for "to walk" with another, historically unrelated word.

Whether or not this kind of cognate replacement happens at a constant rate is, I think, a rather controversial question in Historical Linguistics. It is at least as controversial as whether or not genetic mutations happen at a constant rate. There is at least one paper which argues that frequent words undergo cognate replacement at a slower rate than other words, namely Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. I haven't read the paper closely myself, but note that 1) It's published in Nature, which has a bad reputation as far as language oriented papers go, and 2) None of the authors are linguists.

As for societal differences, I know of no hard data, but I would suspect that a well regulated literary culture would slow down cognate replacement, and that high rates of language contact/bilingualism would speed it up.

  • Actually "ambulare" is not really used a lot, it's a bit regarded as literary or in a joking way, I think. We mostly say "camminare".
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 15:42
  • Ah! I guess it's a lot like "ambulate" in English then! I think I might not change it though, so as to avoid the headache of coming up with "real" examples.
    – JoFrhwld
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 15:50
  • Oh don't worry, the verb actually means "to walk" as well, so I don't think it will affect your examples in a critical way. :) Personally I wasn't sure it meant that, I thought it meant a different acception of "walking", and that explains why some dicts regard it as literary or don't have it at all. :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 15:54

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