Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Google, ngrams, and another tool for the linguist's tool box.

Answer the phone. Compose an email. Send a love letter. Argue with your spouse. Pitch a proposal. Negotiate a deal. Draw up a contract. Give a speech. Read a book. Write a book. Find your exit on the freeway. Tell the truth. Comfort a friend.

Language. It's ubiquitous and so important to everything we do, but most of us never stop to give it much thought. Of course, sometimes it seems that translators never do anything but give it thought. We pick it up and turn it upside down and inside out, examining it from all angles. We debate its meaning, both connotation and denotation. We study its origins and question its evolutions. We like to.

As a translator and word geek, I was very excited to discover Google's ngram search tool. How did I not know about this? Have I been living under a rock? Had you all already discovered this addictive little gem?

I was reading Grammar Girl's post on "woolen vs. wool" in which she uses Google's ngram search to chart the use of these two words over time. I confess, her point about woolen vs. wool was a little overshadowed by the tool she used to make it. (At least, it was for me.)

For those of you who aren't already familiar with this awesome tool, here's how it works: Enter a word or a string of words, select the field you want to research (English, British English, American English, French, English fiction, etc.), choose the years you want to search within (1800-2008), and hit enter. VoilĂ . Instant chart. Want to compare different words or phrases? No problem, you can do that too.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words - here's an example that I found interesting:
(blue = happy, red = joy, green = delight)

What do you suppose that means? I'm sure my sociologist friends would have something to say about the startlingly similar course of these words.

But aside from sociological or psychological curiosities, I can imagine this tool would be very useful when wondering "just what is the most common way of saying that in the target language... is it X? or possibly Y?" I know that sometimes when I'm translating, the source language has a tendency to mess with my concept of natural phrasing in the target.

Of course, you can also use it to map your own linguistic idiosyncrasies. I asked a friend for examples of things that I say that are... less than common. The first, unhesitating reply that I received is charted below:

(So, see my friend? "If I had my druthers" is increasing in popularity! It's not just me! Of course, I think this actually makes me like it less. If I had my druthers, it would be an older, little used phrase and not an up-and-coming phrase.)

How about you? Had you discovered this before? How might you use it? Did you find any particularly interesting charts or graphs? If so, please share!

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