Abstract: Of basic interest is the quantification of the long term growth of a language's lexicon as it develops to more completely cover both a culture's communication requirements and knowledge space. Here, we explore the usage dynamics of words in the English language as reflected by the Google Books 2012 English Fiction corpus. We critique an earlier method that found decreasing birth and increasing death rates of words over the second half of the 20th Century, showing death rates to be strongly affected by the imposed time cutoff of the arbitrary present and not increasing dramatically. We provide a robust, principled approach to examining lexical evolution by tracking the volume of word flux across various relative frequency thresholds. We show that while the overall statistical structure of the English language remains stable over time in terms of its raw Zipf distribution, we find evidence of an enduring ‘lexical turbulence’: The flux of words across frequency thresholds from decade to decade scales superlinearly with word rank and exhibits a scaling break we connect to that of Zipf's law. To better understand the changing lexicon, we examine the contributions to the Jensen-Shannon divergence of individual words crossing frequency thresholds. We also find indications that scholarly works about fiction are strongly represented in the 2012 English Fiction corpus, and suggest that a future revision of the corpus should attempt to separate critical works from fiction itself.
Abstract: It is tempting to treat frequency trends from Google Books data sets as indicators for the true popularity of various words and phrases. Doing so allows us to draw novel conclusions about the evolution of public perception of a given topic, such as time and gender. However, sampling published works by availability and ease of digitization leads to several important effects. One of these is the surprising ability of a single prolific author to noticeably insert new phrases into a language. A greater effect arises from scientific texts, which have become increasingly prolific in the last several decades and are heavily sampled in the corpus. The result is a surge of phrases typical to academic articles but less common in general, such as references to time in the form of citations. Here, we highlight these dynamics by examining and comparing major contributions to the statistical divergence of English data sets between decades in the period 1800–2000. We find that only the English Fiction data set from the second version of the corpus is not heavily affected by professional texts, in clear contrast to the first version of the fiction data set and both unfiltered English data sets. Our findings emphasize the need to fully characterize the dynamics of the Google Books corpus before using these data sets to draw broad conclusions about cultural and linguistic evolution.