Thursday, 12 July 2012

Brilliant free online productivity tools: NGram Viewer

Say what you like about Google (and there are certainly many worrying things we could say about them), the internet giants have rapidly done for statistics what John Travolta did for disco dancing in Saturday Night Fever, or what Samuel L. Jackson did for tartan in The 51st State.  Far from being something reserved for the nerdish and the geekish, Google have used statistics to create massively complex algorithms that enable the internet to understand us, and understand the social worlds in which we live.  They have made statistics cool.  They have used statistics as well, to make huge strides in the field of statistical machine translation.  With NGram Viewer, Google have got together with a number of linguistically and statistically brilliant people and come up with a tool which is equally brilliant.

NGram Viewer

I am surprised NGram Viewer is not better-known, because it really is a pretty wonderful thing for any student.  It works very simply: just type a word or phrase into the search box, select your time period and language, then click on 'Search lots of books'.

NGram Viewer then does just that.  It searches through all of the books stored on Google Books (that's more than 20 million), and returns a chart based on the use of that word or phrase over time.

Why might you use it?

I have, for some time, argued that statistics can (and should) provide significant value in any field of study - even my own field of literary and cultural studies.  NGram Viewer can provide good examples of this.  For example, here is a chart in which I searched for the term 'popular culture' in British English:

Here is another chart, in which I searched for the term 'popular culture' in American English:

What does this suggest?  Well, possibly that while the study of popular culture has wained in Britain over the last few years, interest continues to grow in America.

You can search for a range of different terms and project them into the same chart by simply separating each phrase with a comma.  For example, on this chart I have searched for terms relating to three separate models of literary criticism: Structuralism (blue), Formalism (green) and Deconstruction (red) in both British and American English:

What does this tell us?  Well, perhaps it suggests that interest in formalism didn't quite die out with the emergence of structuralism in the 1950s, as some books suggest.  Perhaps it suggests, as well, that deconstruction did not really become a dominant force until the mid 1990s.  Perhaps it suggests, finally, that interest in all forms of critical theory has dropped significantly since the end of the 1990s.

Of course, we do have to be careful with such data if we are using it for study or scholarly activities.  There are some websites which provide excellent guidance for how to use this tool effectively and in a scholarly manner.  It remains a tremendous tool though, even for the merely curious, or for those wanting to generate some formative data on which to develop new ideas.  It is a wonderfully quick way of determining the impact of growing trends, or the influence of emerging (or declining) ideas.