Google Ngram Viewer

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Google’s Ngram Viewer <> helps users to identify cultural trends based on massive quantities of digitized print data.  Basically, the Ngram Viewer searches over 5.2 million Google Books for key words or phrases and then displays the results in a graph.  This helps users to see not only when key words became popular, but also to do comparative work between multiple terms.  Importantly, users can also look up the key words in their original contexts.

The purpose of this post will be to provide an introduction to the Ngram Viewer and to set up a general assignment that can be adapted to multiple contexts.


How to Use the Ngram Viewer

1. Enter search terms.  In the space provided at the top of the screen, enter the words or phrases that you would like to search for.  Separate each word or phrase with a comma.  Keep in mind that the search is case sensitive, meaning that capitalization matters.

2. Enter date range.  In the next spaces, enter your desired search range.  The default range is from 1800 to 2000, but you can choose any date range that you would like to explore.  You can set the range as wide or as narrow as you need.

3. Select corpus.  The Ngram Viewer allows you to search a number of different corpuses of digitized print media.  You can select, for example, American English, British English, Chinese, French, or German.  Depending on your search terms and purposes for searching, changing the corpus may give you more accurate results or may lead to interesting cultural phenomenon.

4.  Select smoothing.  Smoothing will give you more accurate results by providing what is called a ‘moving average.’  So, if you set a smoothing of 1 with a date range of 1900 to 1950 then the results will be an average of +/– 1 from each of those dates, divided by 3.  This really isn’t too important for our purposes here, but if accuracy is very important to you then this is something you’ll need to know how to use.

5. Search lots of books.  Once you have all of your search criteria set, it’s time to search.

6.  Interpret results.  After you hit the search button, a graph will appear displaying your desired search terms within your date range.  Terms will be displayed in different colors, with the legend above the graph to help you identify them.  Look for spikes in the graph, dips, steady inclines and declines.  The graph can tell you a lot about the cultural and historical significance of your terms.

7. Search in Google Books.  Under the graph, you’ll see significant date ranges that will help you identify these trends.  Clicking on any of these date ranges will bring up a Google Books search for that range, each result containing your search term.  This allows you to see exactly how each term was used in particular contexts.



In-Class Activity

This in-class activity asks students to use the Ngram Viewer to identify cultural trends and historical contexts for key words or phrases.  Working in groups, students will work through a series of inquiry questions that will guide their exploration.  In the end, groups will present their finding orally to the class or post their finding to an online collaborative space.

1.  In small groups, choose a set of search terms that you would like to explore.  Enter the search terms, date range, corpus, etc.  You might need to play around with the criteria to obtain the best results.

2.  After you have set up the Ngram search, use the following inquiry questions to help you interpret the results:

  • During which periods do spikes appear in the graph?
  • During which periods do inclines appear in the graph?
  • During which periods do declines appear in the graph?
  • What was going on culturally and historically during these significant periods that might account for spikes, inclines, and declines?
  • How are these terms actually being used during these periods of time?  Using the Google Books search, read a wide variety of results in their original contexts.  In what contexts are they used?  For what purposes?  By whom are they used?  What are the connotations of their uses?
  • How and why do these particular uses differ from one another?

3.  Present your finding to the class.

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