Tea, weather, and being on time: Scientists analyse 100 million words to reveal what Britons talk about the most

The idea that we are constantly chatting about tea and the weather might be one of the oldest stereotypes about Britons.

But now scientists have confirmed that this caricature is actually based on reality.

Linguists from Lancaster University analysed 100 million words to reveal what Britain is really talking about.

Unsurprisingly, words such as ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, ‘of’ and ‘a’ topped the list. 

However, the team also discovered that some of the most frequently used words in the English language refer to time and punctuality, food and drink, the weather, emotions, and our bodies.

Scientists have revealed that Britain's favourite topics of conversation are time and punctuality, food and drink, emotions, the weather, and our bodies

Scientists have revealed that Britain’s favourite topics of conversation are time and punctuality, food and drink, emotions, the weather, and our bodies 

The most commonly used words in British English

  • The – 52,595 per million
  • And – 26,604 per million
  • To – 25,512 per million 
  • Of – 25,090 per million 
  • A – 22,110 per million 
  • In – 17,651 per million 
  • I – 14,148  per million 
  • It – 12,851 per million 
  • That – 11.880 per million

Source:  Lanclex, BNC2014 

To understand how words are being used, Professor Vaclav Brezina and his colleagues analysed every word in the British National Corpus 2014.

This is a vast sample of current language containing informal speech, fiction, newspapers, magazines, academic writing, and other sources. 

Writing in a blog for The Conversation, Professor Brezina said: ‘The way someone talks, and the words they use, tell us quite a bit about where someone is from, their social background and even their age.

‘Language both reflects and shapes society – as a linguist, it’s my job to find out how.’

From their analysis of hundreds of thousands of unique words, the researchers have identified five key themes in British speech and the words that define them. 

Time and punctuality

One of the most commonly discussed topics in the UK is time and being late.

This topic is so important to Britons that ‘year’ and ‘time’ are the two most frequently used nouns in British English. 

One of the most commonly discussed topics in the UK is time and being late. This topic is so important to Britons that 'year' and 'time' are the two most frequently used nouns in British English

One of the most commonly discussed topics in the UK is time and being late. This topic is so important to Britons that ‘year’ and ‘time’ are the two most frequently used nouns in British English 

‘Year’ occurs 1,963 times per million words, while ‘time’ occurs 1,983 times per million.

This does not even include the expressions ‘on time’ or ‘in time’ which occur with a combined frequency of 47 times per million words.

An analysis of individual time words also reveals the UK’s preferences for certain topics.

For example, ‘summer’ is much more popular than ‘winter’, occurring 144 times per million compared with only 63.

Sunday and Saturday are the most popular days of the week to speak about, at 114 and 104 words per million respectively.

December, meanwhile, is the most popular month at 149 times per million, followed by March and May at 145 times and 142 times per million respectively.  

The weather 

There is nothing Brits love to talk about more than the weather.

One study suggested that the average Briton will spend four months of their life complaining about the weather.

This comes as no surprise since it is estimated that we spend eight hours a week thinking about the weather each week.

Professor Brezina's analysis found that the word 'weather' occurred with a frequency of 60 times per million words

Professor Brezina’s analysis found that the word ‘weather’ occurred with a frequency of 60 times per million words 

Professor Brezina’s analysis found that the word ‘weather’ occurred with a frequency of 60 times per million words.

And, in an indication of how the weather rules our plans, he found that it most commonly occurs alongside the words ‘pub’ and ‘restaurant’.

When it comes to our favourite weather topics, it may be no surprise that sun and rain are the two biggest concerns.

The word ‘sun’ occurred with a frequency of 91 times per million while rain occurred 51 times per million as a noun and 15 times per million as a verb.

Storms, clouds, and snow also dominate our conversations occurring at frequencies of 32, 39, and 37 times per million words respectively.

Professor Brezina also found that the use of words related to the climate such as ‘climate change’ and ’emissions’ increased 21 per cent between 2010-2015 and 2016-2020.

It seems that Britons prefer to talk about nice weather as 'sun' was used more frequently than 'rain', 'storms', 'clouds', or 'snow'

It seems that Britons prefer to talk about nice weather as ‘sun’ was used more frequently than ‘rain’, ‘storms’, ‘clouds’, or ‘snow’

Food and drink  

When it comes to our food and drink, the humble cup of tea reigns supreme.

According to the data released by Professor Brezina and his colleagues, the word ‘cuppa’ occurs 231 times per million and ‘tea’ occurs 92 times per million.

Coffee, meanwhile only occurs 73 times per million while ‘champagne’ occurs six times less often than tea.

Other frequently mentioned beverages include wine, beer, milk, and juice.

And, when it comes to food the analysis reveals some interesting trends about Britain’s dining habits.

Dinner seems to be the UK’s most popular meal, occurring 68 times per million words.

This puts it ahead of lunch at 51 times per million and breakfast at only 43.

Professor Brezina also revealed that Britons have a bit of a sweet tooth, as cake is spoken about three times more frequently than salad.  

Tea was one of the beverages most frequently referenced by Britons, occurring six times as often as 'champagne' (stock image)

Tea was one of the beverages most frequently referenced by Britons, occurring six times as often as ‘champagne’ (stock image)

Professor Brezina created this chart to show how words are used with the verb 'eat'. The closer a word is to 'eat' at the centre the stronger the association between the two, while the bigger the circle the more frequently those words appear together

Professor Brezina created this chart to show how words are used with the verb ‘eat’. The closer a word is to ‘eat’ at the centre the stronger the association between the two, while the bigger the circle the more frequently those words appear together 

Emotions

Britain might be home of the ‘stiff upper lip’ but the researchers have revealed that we do actually talk about our emotions quite often. 

And, despite a reputation for being gloomy, analysis revealed that ‘happy’ is actually the emotional word most frequently spoken by Britons, being used 208 times per million words.  

However, Professor Brezina does point out that it is often used to express contentment in phrases such as ‘I’m quite happy to stay at home’. 

When it comes to words expressing negative emotions Britain once again stays true to its stereotypes, as ‘sorry’ is the most frequently used word.

Often used to apologise or politely refuse something, this word is used at a frequency of 204 times per million. 

Our bodies  

According to the researchers, Britons also spend a fair bit of time talking about their bodies.

In particular, we seem especially keen on using the words ‘hand’, ‘head’, ‘eye’, ‘foot’, and ‘heart’. 

The researchers suggest that the popularity of these phrases might also be due to how frequently they appear in metaphors or other common phrases.

For example ‘hand’, which has a frequency of 530 times per million words, could appear in phrases like ‘lend a hand’ or ‘helping hand’.

Meanwhile ‘head’, which appears 435 times per million words, can be used as a job title like ‘head of sales’.

Professor Brezina added: ‘Expressions such as “on the one hand”, “in the public eye”, “put one’s foot down” and “break somebody’s heart” are all examples of how our bodily experience of the world is present in ordinary language as we use it every day.’

HOW TODDLERS DEVELOP COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Language development explodes from between the ages of two and four according to Dr Amos Grunebaum,  an American obstetrician and gynaecologist.

A child’s vocabulary, understanding and communication skills flourish at around these ages, he says.

These skills are an essential foundation for how a child interacts with others and they significantly impact cognitive, social and emotional development and their future lives in school and beyond. 

By the time a child reaches its second birthday it should have mastered pointing to common objects; three body parts; labelling familiar objects such as cup, dog and shoe. 

Most two years olds can: follow a two step instruction; use more than 50 words – although half will be unintelligible; make phrases of two or more words; use simple plurals and personal pronouns; know the names of close friends and family.

Most three-year-olds will be able to follow two or three step commands and speak in three to four word sentences. 

They should now be much easier to understand and have a vocabulary of around 200 words. 

They should be inquisitive, asking many questions – why, what, who, where, when – and be able to say their name, age and gender. 

They may understand place words like ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘under’ and be able to name a best friend. 

Their conversation will begin to become more interactive and two-way. 

As a child transitions to preschool, their understanding is becoming much more refined. 

They will begin to understand time words and order words – today, tomorrow, first, next. 

They will be getting better at following more complex instructions and she should be able to hear and understand speech in a variety of settings. 

Their pronunciation will be improving but she may still struggle with difficult consonant like sh, th and l. 

They may begin to name letters and numbers. They may be able to retell events and keep a simple conversation going. 

Their personality will begin to shine through as she chooses topics of conversation that interest her.