We look at what 500 years of word usage tells us about our culture. See the Google Books Ngram Viewer.
We are the species of language and words. The words we use come pretty close to defining us … the way we see the world. And those words change over time — dramatically.
Now, researchers are tapping a massive new database of words and phrases from 5 million books to see how our embrace and use of words has changed over centuries.
Google put it up. The new tool lets you map the path of any word through time. “Beseech”? It’s way past its prime. “God”? That word peaked in 1830. “Twitter”? It was huge in 1900, and coming back, changed.
We look at our history, and life, in words.
Erez Lieberman Aiden, co-author of the article “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” which appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Science. He’s a fellow with the Harvard University Society of Fellows.
Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.