Even if the results stand up to scrutiny, they might not be earth-shattering from a linguist’s perspective. Bill Kretzschmar, a professor at the University of Georgia who oversees the Linguistic Atlas Project, told Inside Science that the paper’s findings about language cooling were “underwhelming.” “For every million words you add after the first couple, you don’t get much return from that, and we knew that already.” Still, Kretzschmar appreciates the fresh methodology that physicists and other scientists bring to the table. “I think this is an important movement in the study of language,” he remarked.
As this attitude suggests, tensions over the language cooling paper may really boil down to something simple: the need for better communication between disciplines that previously had little to do with each other. As new data models allow mathematicians and physicists to make their own contributions about language, scientific journals need to make sure that their work is on firm footing by involving linguists in the review process. That way, culturomics can benefit from an older kind of scholarship—namely, what linguists already know about how humans shape words and words shape humans.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reachedat benzimmer.com/contact.