03/21/2011 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Winston Churchill Could Tweet, but Francis Bacon Couldn't

In honor of Twitter's 5th birthday today!

Public speakers have been using "sound bites" for decades. A trend has been emerging, long before the "birth" of Twitter five years ago. According to R. J. Hoyle's article "Decline of Language As a Medium of Communication," The Journal of Irreproducible Results, pp. 134-135 (1983) (yes, there really is such a journal, and no, it is not scientific):

The decline of English as a means of communication is evident here and its eventual demise may be postulated.

The recently reported decline in the ability of students and people in many walks of life to use English in both speech and writing has been accompanied by suggestions that facility with English is of diminishing usefulness. (Time magazine, Aug. 25, 1975, "Can't Anyone Here Speak English?")

There's more. The average word length, in letters, is declining over time.

The decline {letters per word} is approximately one letter per century and can be extrapolated to zero letters per word at about the year 2450.

Consider this analysis of British public speakers over the centuries:

Sentence Lengths of British Public Speakers 1598-1940

Since the average word has about 5 characters, Francis Bacon's sentence length needed at least 360 characters -- too long for a Tweet. In contrast, Winston Churchill's average sentence can fit at about 120 characters -- room to spare for Twitter's limit of 140.

The big question: What would Winston Churchill tweet?

A version of this article was published at Dean's Corner at ScienceBlogs.