Coherent oscillations in word-use data from 1700 to 2008

Montemurro, Marcelo A. and Zanette, Damián H. (2016). Coherent oscillations in word-use data from 1700 to 2008. Palgrave Communications, 2, article no. 16084.



In written language, the choice of specific words is constrained by both grammatical requirements and the specific semantic context of the message to be transmitted. To a significant degree, the semantic context is in turn affected by a broad cultural and historical environment, which also influences matters of style and manners. Over time, those environmental factors leave an imprint in the statistics of language use, with some words becoming more common and other words being preferred less. Here we characterize the patterns of language use over time based on word statistics extracted from more than 4.5 million books written over a period of 308 years. We find evidence of novel systematic oscillatory patterns in word use with a consistent period narrowly distributed around 14 years. The specific phase relationships between different words show structure at two independent levels: first, there is a weak global phase modulation that is primarily linked to overall shifts in the vocabulary across time; and second, a stronger component dependent on well defined semantic relationships between words. In particular, complex network analysis reveals that semantically related words show strong phase coherence. Ultimately, these previously unknown patterns in the statistics of language may be a consequence of changes in the cultural framework that influences the thematic focus of writers.

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