America boasts more Christians than any other country on planet Earth. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to us.
According to Google Ngram Viewer data, a searchable database of millions of printed works stretching back 500 years, most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining. One 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, analyzed 50 moral terms associated with Christianity and found that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century:
“Grace” … declined
“Mercy” … declined
“Wisdom” … declined
“Faith” … declined
“Sacrifice” … declined
“Honesty” … declined
“Righteousness” … declined
“Evil” … declined
As David Brooks pointed out in The New York Times a few years ago, even basic moral and religious words are fading from use. For example, more general language about the virtues Christians call “the fruit of the Spirit” — love, patience, gentleness, faithfulness — has become much rarer.
The use of humility words, like modesty, fell by 52 percent over the 20th century.
Compassion words, like kindness, dropped by 56 percent.
Gratitude words, like thankfulness, declined by 49 percent.
And courage words, like bravery, plunged by 66 percent.
Ngram data is complicated and susceptible to misinterpretation, of course. The overabundance of scientific literature in the database can skew findings, for example, and it is often difficult to account for all colloquial, synonymous terms that have arisen during the same period. But the data we have cannot be dismissed out of hand, and at the very least indicates that traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world.
Now, words have fallen out of usage at every point in history. Language is always changing, and humans keep marching on. Does this trend matter?
Actually, yes. An emerging body of research now reveals that the languages we hear and speak also influence our worldviews, memories, perceptions, and behaviors more than scientists once realized. Children who grow up speaking the same words tend to think in similar ways. Our minds don’t just shape our words. Our words shape our minds, too.
A linguist named Lera Boroditsky once asked an audience of celebrated scholars at Harvard University to close their eyes and point north. Hands shot up around the auditorium like roman candles, aimed in all possible directions. She repeated the experiment at Princeton and Stanford, as well as in Moscow, London, and Beijing. The result was the same — an array of hands …read more