Sunday, 28 July 2013

Words in black and white


Some words keep their utility. A  study of words and their cognates in other languages suggests that there are at least 23 “ultra-conserved” words, which are estimated to have lasted for 15,000 years. This paper by Pagel et al in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 2012 is a notable example of the archaeology of vocabulary.

Here are the eternal words, listed by the number of language families in which they have cognates. Click here for the reference.

7 - thou
6 - I
5 - not, that, we, to give, who
4 - this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

It is not the custom of this blog to offer prizes, but I have no doubt my noble readers could turn these words into a stirring message of eternal significance. “Spit in fire, thou old mother, to pull ashes, to hand bark to man, worm that we give…….”   All of human life is there. How do these words fare in modernity, by which we mean the last two centuries, beginning with the first UK Census in 1801? Yes, the opening of the Darlington Railway in 1832 was probably more significant as “the day the world took off”, but why complicate matters?

The fact that a word has survived does not mean that it is still popular. In the published English language “Thou” has become an anachronism, but “I” still retains its egotistical appeal (0.38%) ahead of the more inclusive “we” (0.15%). “Black” and the more modern “white” present an interesting picture: white pulled away from black until 1966 when black began a strong comeback, very possibly related to the “Black is Beautiful” movement. Current usage in published work puts white at 0.018% and black at 0.016%. (That graph alone is a testimony to the success of a political campaign).

So, how do these emotionally charged racial words fare in published usage? In all human enterprises one must make allowance for the “polite threshold”. In vernacular architecture, as well described by R.W.Brunskill (Vernacular Architecture, Faber, 1971) it is that stage when rough dwellings become mannered to some degree, conscious of themselves, morphing from building into architecture in the professional sense. It constitutes a deliberate obsequy to fashion, style, and an international or even classical aesthetic, rising above local convention and amateur practicality.

First, let us get rid of the small stuff. The insulting word which arouses contemporary ire and shame, deriving from the great river Niger in West Africa, has never been much used in published books (though it may have been used in everyday speech). It is at roughly the same rare level as obscene sexual words which are taboo in printed discourse.

In the 1800s three words dominated the racial sphere: negro, whites and blacks. (Pedantically, “negro” is Spanish for black and therefore mere repetition, but one assumes it was used within English in the racial sense). Negro peaks in the 1860s, and then falls into relative obscurity.

Racial is also a rare word, as is Racist (0.0006%), which despite its pejorative power does not appear till the mid 1960s, and though powerful remains relatively rare. To my surprise, neither racial prejudice nor racial discrimination show up very much. The biggest drama in usage occurs with blacks which shot up massively from the 1960s to a peak in the mid seventies, such that they were mentioned more often than whites, and that preponderance was sustained for the last three decades. A simple explanation is that Black Consciousness made it polite and even requisite to refer to coloured people in this way, though nowadays blacks and whites are mentioned equally frequently. In terms of word frequency alone, colored attained maximum advancement in the 1940s, and has declined but is still used (0.002%) as much as whites and blacks.

So, what is happening here? There is a reality which must be described, but the way in which it is done shows social and political influences, and probably polite fashions as well. Certainly, we still have Totem and Taboo, and taboo leads to euphemism and evasion. Words change in acceptability, but if there is a need to describe, a way is found.

One word makes a steady advance through the two centuries of racial group descriptions, ending up at the top of the pile. It seems to start at about 1860. It achieves more printed usage than the others, though it is hardly common (0.003%).  The word is genetic. Origin of Species was published in 1859. Ideas take time to get into discourse, and the word may not have yet achieved fixation, though it has handsomely exceeded the well-conserved ancient word “ashes”.





Disclaimer: Words may go up and down, and you may not get back the investment you made in learning them. Minor changes in word spellings and their cognates affect the results. Even allowing for that, all these analyses are highly sensitive to the scales used. If you couple words of differing frequencies in any display then you can almost draw patterns at will. It is the old “zero suppression distortion” all over again.  We are going to have to classify frequencies into readily recognisable bands, like geologic strata if we are to simplify and civilise these comparisons. Still, it is a rainy Sunday.


  1. "deriving from the great river Niger in West Africa": really?

    I loathe the I-avoiding "we" beloved of people in show-business. The absurd South of England "one" to mean "I" also earns my sneers. If you mean "I", say it; if you find yourself saying it too often change the topic of conversation but do not continue to bang on about yourself by substituting "one" or "we". Bah humbug!

  2. P.S. I have a pal who is black but not negro. He's from PNG.