It’s harder than you might think to use Google Ngrams to actually chart trends in cultural history — or do “culturomics,” as the Science article authors would have it — because of well-known problems with the data set.
Here, Matthew Battles tries (on more or less a lark) to see some history play out, Bethany Nowviskie spots a trend (maybe true, maybe false), and Sarah Werner flags the problem.
Aw, man — that fhit Seriously Pucks.
You know what would actually be pretty cool, though? If it were easier to go one level deeper and use Ngrams to do Google Instant Regression. You could graph trends against well-known noise (other s-words misread as f) AND other trends — or instantly find similar graphs.
Let’s say the curve of the graph for the f–word in the 1860s is similar to that for other words and phrases — like “ass”* or “confederacy”* — you could correlate language with other language, individual words with stock phrases, and even (using language as an index/proxy) extralinguistic cultural trends or historical events.
Single-variable analysis just doesn’t tell you very much, even on a data set as problematic as print/language. You need systematic data, and better comparison and control capacity between variables, before you can start to do real science.
(* Ignore for the purposes of this example ascribing contemporary historical meanings to these two ambiguous terms.)
At HiLobrow, Matthew Battles interviews Tim Maly about his 50 Cyborgs project, for which Robin and I both wrote posts. Tim (Tim M, the other Tim) has a lot of nice things to say about Snarkmarket, and the whole interview is in part a response to Robin’s call for a postmortem on the project, but the interview’s mostly interesting for the smart things Tim says in response to Matt’s smart proddings.
A fair amount of the discussion circles around the nature of language. Here’s a representative chunk, where Matthew asks Tim about whether or not nonfiction criticism needs (or already has) a “fanfic impulse”:
I’m thinking about how Bruce Sterling in particular has identified or refined a series of concepts—spime, atemporality, favela chic, design fiction, to name a few — which people who aren’t students of his, but fans of his critique, sort of take up and extend. Maybe “hilobrow” has pretensions to this kind of conceptul life; “bookfuturism,” too has fans, now, and a life of its own. Of course we’re always doing this sort of thing in public discourse; it’s just a notion I have now that “fandom” becomes another mode or style of relating, alongside classroom, chiefdoms/tribes, and mentorship, among other models. Call it “fancrit”? Or not…
Tim is game, and runs with the “fancrit” idea:
The interesting thing about this, I think, is that where fanfic is necessarily ghettoized (you are playing with someone else’s copyrighted characters and worlds) fancrit is fed by a long academic tradition of fighting for mindshare via vocabulary. Sterling coins spime and that’s a meaningful event only to the extent that he can lose control of it. He wins when people start using the word without bothering to attribute it to him. Clynes & Kline coin cyborg and they end up winning to the point where Clynes becomes irritated with the way the meaning shifts and is twisted.
If you don’t get that etymological/genealogical twisting of cyborg from Clynes and Kline’s original, limited meaning, you don’t get 50 posts about it; the term itself isn’t generative or potent enough to move beyond its first-generation instance. It’s a concept that can’t conceive, in the sexual/reproductive sense.
That’s the power of language, which can be a dangerous power — it’s always exceeding our ability to, Humpty-Dumpty like, determine once and for all what words mean.
But it also means that words can be put into motion without permission, without determination — that they can circulate without anyone needing to hold them fast, or play Pope to decide what’s in and what’s out. They have a life of their own.
This is what I also like in Bruce Sterling’s comment on TM and MB’s conversation:
Some remarkable stuff in this discussion about positioning for niche intelligentsia eyeballs in the modern post-blogosphere. I think people used to call that activity “publishing,” but nowadays it’s a creolized effort badly in need of a neologism.
We don’t have a word for this! Let’s make one up! We have an old word, but it doesn’t work any more; it doesn’t mean what it should, or it means too much. Let’s let it go! Let it mean something else — and we can all talk about this in a different way.
I have something that I’m fond of saying, and it’s totally drawn from my training in philosophy: sometimes the most important thing you can do in an argument is to point out that we don’t have to talk about it the way we’ve always talked about it.
If you asked me to boil down the “real meaning” of the Bookfuturist manifesto I wrote, I’d say it’s that. We almost always talk about the relationship between culture and technology in very predictable ways that don’t solve problems. So let’s not talk about them that way anymore.
If you want a better example, look at this post on education, pointed to me by Rob Greco:
The “problems” we face with schools are right now are less about the schools themselves and more about a lack of vision and a fear of change. Put simply, the age-grouped, subject-delineated, 8 am-2 pm, September-June, one-size-fits-all system that we have makes the process of education easy. The realities of personal, self-directed, real problem-solving learning in a connected world are anything but.
Still, the hardest reality right now is that there is no groundswell to do school differently, not just “better.” Seems it’s easy to see a path to “better.” “Different” is just too scary.
If you want to do philosophy, or to show someone what it means to do philosophy, even your grandma, or a seven-year-old, get a group of people into a room and ask them, “what is a sport?”
Quickly, you’ll get strong opinions. Some people don’t think golf is a sport; other people don’t think figure skating should be one. Is dodgeball a sport? What about “tag”? (Some people are really good at tag.) Table tennis? Video games? Cheerleading? If not, why not? Eventually, people will try to come up with definitions. The definitions will resolve some problems but inevitably, they’ll exclude something that everyone in the room agrees is at least a borderline case.
What’s great about it is that you’re not arguing about the fundamental nature of the universe, drawing on complex symbolic logic, or questioning people’s ethical or religious beliefs (you know, depending on how strongly they feel about baseball).
You haven’t assigned any reading. There’s no mathematical equation to be solved, reference work to consult, or tool to be used to solve the problem. But everyone agrees that you’re talking about a real thing, something that actually exists and is relatively important, and at least for most of us, worth having an opinion about.
All you’re doing is asking everyone in the room to ask themselves: when I use such-and-such a word, what do I mean? What am I assuming? What am I committing myself to? If there’s a dispute between two people about how to use a word or what it means, how do we resolve it? How do we decide with language how we use language? And how do we do this, for the most part, completely organically and without great complication?
It’s a wonder. And it deserves to be wondered at.
Tim Maly has a great phrase for the group he gathered to work on 50 Cyborgs:
I’m lucky to have this great community (clique?) that’s emerged around a bunch of people whose work I love who have a family resemblance of obsessions.
“Family-resemblance,” if you don’t know, is an important phrase in philosophy. It’s the phrase Ludwig Wittgenstein uses to describe just the process I described above — how words like “game,” “sport,” “cyborg,” “community,” “book,” or “publishing” don’t have a single fixed meaning, a picture of a thing that you can match to each word, like God’s own dictionary.
Instead we’ve got this sloppy, fleshy language that generates and regenerates itself over time and across space and forms new clusters and meanings, and we can’t even collect the entire extension of the concept; all we can say is this word is used in such-and-such-a-way, and, within the broad unspoken assumptions of the lifeworld of a particularly community, we know what we mean and we know how to resolve misunderstandings.
Blogs — the best blogs — are public diaries of preoccupations. The reason why they are preoccupations is that you need someone who is continually pushing on the language to regenerate itself. The reason why they are public is so that those generations and regenerations and degenerations can find their kin, across space, across fame, across the likelihood of a connection, and even across time itself, to be rejoined and reclustered together.
Because that is how language and language-users are reborn; that is how the system, both artificial and natural, loops backward upon and maintains itself; because that is how a public and republic are made, how a man can be a media cyborg, and also become a city. That’s how this place where we gather becomes home.
The Middle East is anxious about what’s perceived as a decline in Arabic:
[C]alls to forestall the language’s demise are accompanied by cautionary tales about parents who encourage their children to learn other “more useful” languages like English and French, only to find that they can scarcely recite the Arabic alphabet when they get to university. Meanwhile, teachers across the region warn about the rise of “Facebook Arabic,” a transliterated form of the language based on the Latin script. Exemplifying their concerns are the oratorical fumbles of some of the region’s younger political leaders like Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, whose shambling inaugural address to the Lebanese parliament provoked much local tittering. Not everyone is amused: Fi’l Amr, a language-advocacy group, has launched a campaign to raise awareness about Arabic’s critical condition by staging mock crime scenes around Beirut depicting “murdered” Arabic letters, surrounded by yellow police tape that reads: “Don’t kill your language.”
Really, though, it’s not actually Arabic that’s suffering, but a particular grapholect, fusha, the Modern Standard Arabic that closely resembles the classical Arabic of the Koran. And fusha has always been more of an imagined commonality binding together the Arab world than a reality.
In a very basic sense, there is no such thing as Arabic; or, at least, there is no single language that all Arabs speak, read, write, and understand. Instead, Arabic is, like English and many other languages, a constellation of various national dialects, regional vernaculars, and social registers bearing different degrees of resemblance to each another. What sets it apart from a language like English is its diglossic nature, whereby the language of literature and formal address (newscasts, political speeches, religious sermons, and so forth) is markedly different, on multiple structural levels, from the language of everyday speech.
You can overstate this, but it’s a little bit like 19th-century Western Europeans watching literacy numbers boom while wringing their hands over the fate of Latin.
As recently as 1970, three out of four Arabs over the age of 15 were illiterate, according to Unesco. Two decades earlier, illiteracy among women was close to 90 per cent. Even in a country like contemporary Egypt – which has long prided itself, as the old saying goes, on reading the books that Iraq writes and Lebanon publishes – less than two-thirds of the population can read. To speak, therefore, of helping restore Arabic to its former glory, or of helping it to “reemerge as a dynamic and vibrant language” as the government of the UAE has recently committed itself to do, is to ignore the reality that Arabic – both in its classical and modern standard incarnation – has never had as many users as it does today. Even taking into consideration the sway that English holds in the private and educational sectors of various countries in the region, or the important position that French occupies in France’s former colonies, it is impossible to pinpoint another moment in the history of the Arab world when so many people could communicate (with varying degrees of ability) in fusha.
This article I’m quoting was written by my friend Elias Muhanna, who blogs about Lebanese politics as Qifa Nabki, and published in The National, then picked up by The Economist. Whoo-hoo! Comp Lit PhDs FTW!
I’ve long agonized over snuck vs. sneaked. But the sly force and grinning vitality of this defense of the former—from the Paris Review!—puts me over the top. I’m sold. Snuck it is.
I liked this galloping graf blogged by Frank Chimero. It’s written in that great exhortational style of Whitman, and of the American West. Which would, I think, work great on the web; somebody ought to just start blogging like this.
(Is “exhortational” even a word?)
Enjoyed this little bit of greeting history from Clive Thompson, by way of Liz Danzico. I’m now imagining a world where people shout “ahoy!” into their phones as a greeting, and I love it.
Rachel shares some language hacks used to confound the Great Firewall:
Chai Zi, if you remember, is an old form of divination involving the splitting up of Chinese characters into their component radicals,altering or removing strokes to form different words. But ancient an artform as it is, it’s also become, today, one of the weapons in the arsenal of the Chinese Internet Résistance.
An example I like: the government likes to say that it filters the internet to promote ‘harmony’ (和谐, HE2 XIE2), and bans ‘unharmonious’ blogs. Chinese bloggers, however, say sardonically of a banned blog that it has been ‘river crabbed’ (河蟹, HE2 XIE2), because the word for river crab, while comprised of entirely different words to the word for harmony, nonetheless sounds exactly the same.
Cross-reference this with Stanislas Dehaene’s book “Reading in the Brain” and you get a gooey mass of brain-bending politico-linguistic delight.
Vladimir Nabokov, interview with the New York Times, 1969:
How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of
the immediate past?
I often think there should exist a special typographical
sign for a smile–some sort of concave mark, a supine round
bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your
(Shared by a friend on Google Reader.)
Nico Muhly, the terrific composer, is also a terrific blogger. It’s all about the voice. The voice! He’s in the Netherlands—look at the conversational flow, the thinking-out-loud, the high and low:
Dutch is one of those languages I wish I had a quicker time with. I’ve mastered ordering coffee and sparkling water without people switching to English, so, that’s good. There’s something slightly disturbing about the visual scan of the language (I don’t even know what the term is for that: you know when you see a page, or a sign, written in a language and you have an immediate impression of the content of the text? This works also in your native language: look at a page from, like, Dickens, and you can sort of get the Shudder of the Text, or whatever, anyway, what I mean is that some languages, like French, always seem to bear a melismatic philosophy behind the page; German, an authority, Amharic, a crooked delight…) … with Dutch what I get is a sort of childlike pornography: hoog, sneeuwt, poesje, standplaats.
It might seem like I’m overreacting, but no, this is a really good blog post, and they’re often like this.
“Amharic, a crooked delight.” I love it. “The Shudder of the Text”—I’m not even 100% sure what that means, but I love it, too. I want to write a story called “The Shudder of the Text.”
This post is also ace.
And Nico Muhly’s music is, of course, also great.