The most used words in Spanish are the so-called functional words

University students conducted a study to find out which words are the most used; they review the influence of the so-called emojis and their racial use. On April 23, Spanish Language Day is celebrated at the United Nations, the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

The most used words in Spanish are the so-called functional words
In 2000, the most used nouns in Spanish books were: parte, años, Estado, vida, nacional, tiempo, social, forma and política. Photo by Dan Gold / Unsplash

The most used words in Spanish are the so-called functional words, i.e. prepositions, conjunctions, and articles that give structure to the language. The least used words are nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, according to a study in which Carlos Gershenson García, an expert from the Institute for Research in Applied Mathematics and Systems (IIMAS) and the Center for Complexity Sciences (C3), participated.

On the occasion of Spanish Language Day at the United Nations, Gershenson García shared part of the results of the study "Dynamics of ranking", which showed that: de, la, en, y, el, que, a, los, del, se, las, por, un, con, una, no, para, su, es, and al, occupy the first 20 places of the most used words in the language, which means that there is no noun.

Language changes over time, and what generates modifications is the use that is made of it, so it is important to discuss what is the best way to use it to comply with a rule and avoid misunderstandings, to be clear as it can influence the decisions we make and the behavior we have, he emphasizes. "We are at a time when we can conduct studies and the more we understand how languages work or evolve, the better we will be able to use them," he believes.

For the work, the university researcher and his collaborators took advantage of texts scanned by Google Books from the 17th century to 2009, in which it is possible to see this evolution. For example, if we focus only on nouns, the most frequently used words in the year 1700 were: faith, lord, cardinal, king, god, alone, time, tan, duke, and acid.

By 1800: god, part, time, alone, lord, man, body, life, way, and men. By 1900: lord, law, government, state, right, years, year, city, and article; that is, the text ceases to be more religious and is more statesmanlike, it no longer talks about God, but about the government or characters. While for the year 2000 the frequent nouns were: part, years, state, life, year, national, time, social, form, and politics.

The specialist in complex systems explains that the change in the frequent use of words is interesting, since the use of language shows the social changes, for example, the word "social", which is not among the most used words before 1900.

The second most important in the world

As one of the six official languages of the UN, since 2013 the organization has been celebrating Spanish every April 23 in honor of the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, convinced of the central role of this language in the understanding of peoples, tolerance, and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity to spread a message of peace in the world.

The international organization seeks to promote the official languages in its areas of work, including Spanish, for which its platforms include interpretation and translation services, in addition to language and communication programs for its employees and multilingual external communication services.

More than 15 years ago, the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 members and there was concern that "the big languages would eat up the small ones", as some are spoken by less than five million people. In that sense, it is easier for them to adopt the ones that are more widely used because of the asymmetry. "But what we have seen is that in many cases globalization has fostered nationalism, both in its positive and negative aspects."

Not everyone knows that Spanish is the second most important native language, after Mandarin, due to the influence of the Spanish empire and its colonies; the third most spoken language in the world is English. "Thanks to globalization, migration, and others, there has been influencing of Spanish in other languages in different ways".

The expert in Complex Systems specifies that the analysis he and his team carried out almost ten years ago when physicists Germinal Cocho and Jorge Flores told him about their interest in knowing which words were the most recurrent in languages. They realized that tools such as Google Books were viable to review the frequency of use according to different years, which they analyzed together with Carlos Pineda, and Sergio Sanchez, among other collaborators and students.

The researchers were interested in knowing how language changed and how it was displayed in different data sets, that is, the most commonly used words at certain times in history, which helps to better understand how language has evolved. One of the aspects that most caught their attention is that you could characterize the evolution of the language with the same measures.

"The interesting thing is that over time the functional words have hardly changed, although there are exceptions. For example, in Spanish the A was accented until 1911, so in our lists the accented A was in a certain place until that year, then it leaves, but the unaccented A enters; in other words, only the convention of how to write it changed," says Gershenson García.

"It is noticeable that English has been increasing its influence on other languages, but it is also interesting to see the influence that others have had in history. For example, German decreased its influence after World War II in other languages and this is something we are working on," says the researcher.

Gershenson García recalls that language is one of the most flexible tools of communication, which adapts to the time and places where it is used, hence in Mexico English words (test, for example) are used without translation and are understood by many people, and in countries such as the United States it is possible to find expressions originating in Spanish, such as the whole enchilada to emphasize a complete thing.

The researchers also review the influence in different nations of the so-called emojis, as well as their racial use. For example, for those in which the color can be changed, there is a strong bias to use light-colored ones.