Tracking Cultural Trends Through Language in Books

Imagine if there were no cars, no internet, no TV and no cell phones. What if you didn’t possess an education past the third grade and were expected to keep up the family farm instead? Could you write to your friends? How would see your loved ones if there weren’t any planes? Even a simple journey across the city was a monumental feat given that, well, you made the trip on your feet. How would you know someone in your family died or your favorite obscure celebrity was releasing a new movie if only a few people in town had phone service (and it wasn’t you)?

Ngram ViewerPhoto: Google

Beeping contraptions and flashing gadgets have only made it into mainstream culture in the past 30 years. Even for people of this author’s age, these aforementioned technologies were not around when they were growing up. Now, no one can imagine surviving without them.

Research utilizing the nearly 5.2 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2000 uncovered a startling revelation of just what life was like for our ancestors. This research shows what bygone cultures were concerned about and sought help for. It showed their fears and just how ignorant they were in some surprising areas of everyday life.

ADVERTISEMENT

Roughly 4 percent of all books ever published and generally one third of Google’s digital archive has been scoured over, with the results revealing societal trends that are truly amazing. The magnitude of 500 billion words traced over two centuries is mind-boggling to say the least. The researchers discovered that at least 70% of the English language has been created in just the past 50 years. In 1950, the English language comprised of only 597,000 words. Now we have at least 1,022,000 words.

ADVERTISEMENT

Shockingly, only about half of the English language is even in the English dictionary. Though we have added an estimated 8,500 words every year to the English dictionary since 1950, many are also deleted and lost forever. The decision to delete words is made when the words are no longer used frequently in books. One such word, deletable, was dropped recently.

What is even more mind-blowing is the fact that communication has changed, culture has been irreversibly altered, and our society has forever been a disposable one since the technological revolution. For example, it once took at least 50 years for a technological invention to be widely mentioned in books. In the period of 1880 to 1920, it took 32 years for this to occur; now, it’s almost instantaneous. Books that don’t mention technology that has quickly become popular are discarded, and new books that catch up to the technological trends are immediately printed.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

According to the in-depth research, it was a spectacular accomplishment for someone to become a widely known dignitary at the age of 43 in 1800. However, in the modern world of material consumption, disposable technology and widespread wastage, the average age to become a celebrity around the world is now 27. What’s more, the duration of a celebrity’s popularity, even if brought to power through politics or other more sustainable positions, is getting shorter and shorter. It is impossible to keep hold of one’s worldy power and the admiration of others for as long as it once was.

The bioengineer Erez Lieberman-Aiden, who worked on this research, said it best in this quote, “People are getting more famous than ever before but are being forgotten more rapidly than ever.”

Want to explore grammatical changes in literature and culture since 1880? Go to the Google Ngram Viewer site and type in any word you would like. You will see a chart like the ones in this article. A word of caution, though. It can be addictive!

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT