Change in the English language: some interesting Google N-Grams

November 18, 2013 at 9:12 am

One of Google’s lesser-known but more influential programmes is Google Books. Started quietly in 2002, the operation aims to digitise all of the world’s books. Many authors, illustrators and libraries have mixed feelings about what this means for copyrighted material, but the project is continuing rapidly all over the world.

In typical Google fashion, the data gleaned from scanning over 30 million books has been made available through various online search features; if you are interested in the development of a language, the N-Gram viewer offers some fascinating insights.

N-Grams track the frequency of certain words or combinations of words over time. The results can be interesting!

“With who” vs. “With whom”

Grammarians and pedants will gladly tell you that only one of these combinations can be grammatically correct, but look at that blue line creeping up since 1980.

who or whom

It is also interesting to note the significant decline in the use of “with whom”. Perhaps writers have been avoiding the structure to keep their work sounding modern, without being ready to break grammar rules by using “with who”.

Thou, thee, you

Thou and thee actually fell out of common usage before 1800, but declined to negligible figures after the Second World War.

thou thee tharr

You, on the other hand, has been booming since the 1950s. What could be the cause of this? Perhaps the influence of advertising and self-help books, both of which like to address readers directly. With the near total loss of thou and thee, you would also replace all instances of these words in published text.

Rude words

This one speaks for itself:

rude words

BRICS

The English-speaking world is certainly paying more attention to Brazil, Russia, India and China than in centuries gone by. The large peak in mentions of India comes in the years after it gained independence from Britain and became a model for decolonialisation.

BRICS

Russia’s figures for the 20th century are probably somewhat affected by the use of USSR or Soviet Union for decades. Check out the peaks in interest after the Bolshevik revolution and during the Second World War.

“He is gone to” vs. “He has gone to”

This one shows a development in the English language. Much like in modern French and German, it used to be standard in English to “be” gone as opposed to “have” gone.

Is gone to, has gone to

It was important include “to” in the search terms to avoid phrases like “he has gone mad” or “he is gone” and out of my life.

Have a go with Google’s N-Grams for yourself and leave a comment here if you find anything interesting!

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