Humanities: Words Over Time

Humanities: Words Over Time

Suppose you want to know how the word love has been used throughout the years in different cultures. It might be fair to assume that books are representative of what is important or interesting to a culture, but how long would it take you to count how many times the word love occurs in a book or even a large number of books? Google's ngram viewer (embedded below) visually displays the occurrences of a word, or phrase (ngrams) for many of the books Google has scanned.

Try changing the word love in the search bar below to another word. Which words show an increase or decrease over time? Was there a word that caused a large spike in the graph?





If you handed a group of people today's newspaper and asked them to find the words that occur most frequently, what process would you suggest they use in order to come up with an answer in the shortest amount of time?


If you asked that same group of people to summarize today's news in a few sentences, what guidelines would you suggest that would help them find the most important information of the day? What about for a year's worth of newspapers for a retrospective?

The algorithms used to scan through all of the words in the books is similar to the process used to crawl the web and know which words are important and relevant to your query. Algorithms such as these have made it possible to search through large amounts of information. If you wanted to keep exploring the possibilities try these ideas:

  1. Query multiple words in the ngram viewer. Try typing love, money into the ngram search bar above and create hypothesis about whether or not the trends were a coincidence, a reflection of a significant event, or a shift in culture. Add in various emotions like happy, sad to see if these trend along with your search term.

  2. Try the opposite approach. Think about a particular major event and see if you can find the right search term that indicates an increase of its mention during a particular time period.

  3. Which medium would best represent your culture? Newspapers, books, music, movies, text messages, YouTube videos, something else?

Learn more about these topics by searching the Internet for ngram, culturomics, Zipf's law, Shakespeare authorship, and Google zeitgeist. Potential standards this activity could align with if used with students.