Thursday, December 16, 2010

Words, Culture, and Change

Hector Neff just sent me the link to the Culturomics website. This project (with paper in Science) uses digitized books (from Google Books) representing some 4% of all books ever printed to track word usage over time. Amazing. A whole host of folks were involved -- including Pinker, Nowak and Jean-Baptiste Michel.

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

You can play with the data (and download it!) at http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/. Check out, for example, "bell bottoms".


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or compare "bowler hat, fedora and baseball cap"


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This is a fantastic look at how cultural terms vary over time with all kinds of implications for studying rates of changes, functional contexts, etc. Very cool! Not too many anthropologists on that co-author list!

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