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May 25, 2013

What Do Our Words Say About Us?

What do our words say about us over time?

The words we use, their meanings and of course…

...their cultural contexts change constantly.

What happens when you look over decades, even centuries, of how words are used?

As you can see on this remarkable new Google site, you can type in any word (or word string) and get a sense of its published use (in a variety of languages besides English) for the past five hundred years.

Here, for example is the word ‘book’ traced over that time span - http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=book&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=.

And look at the references to ‘money’ in that same time frame - http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=money&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=10&share=.

You can use the program here - http://books.google.com/ngrams.

This site is great for words nerds (like myself) but I am sure it could be used for productive uses besides fun and distraction.

On a previous blog, I explored how some words have (or had) crude or even obscene meanings. These meanings, however, are not static. They too, change over time.

Take a look at this program and type in a crude (or obscene) word and you will be able to track how widely it was used (offensive or not).

Here is a tracing of the word ‘blood’ from 1500 to 2000. In the early years ‘blood’ (or ‘bloody’) was seen as religious (or sacrilegious) but, I would guess, by the early Twentieth Century, it took on a more clinical, medically specific usage.

You can see the history of ‘blood’ here - http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=blood&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=10&share=.

You can also type in family names and find any historic relatives! If you look for family names, be sure to note the date links towards the bottom of the page. You just might connect with some distant relatives – I just did!

Here's a good introductory article which describes what the site is and what it can do http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/opinion/brooks-what-our-words-tell-us.html?_r=1&.

Be sure to send us any language usages that puzzle you, and be sure to let us know what it is about language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.


Also: for the first time in several years, Morf is available this summer to visit your school or program. You can contact him at mmorf@mail.com. As you can probably guess, Morf can talk about just about anything. ;-)

Posted by mmorf at May 25, 2013 11:08 PM


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