Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, Riverhead Books, 280 pages, $27.95
Why do English speakers say “drove” rather than “drived”? As graduate students at the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics about eight years ago, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel pondered the matter and decided that something like natural selection might be at work. In English, the “-ed” past-tense ending of Proto-Germanic, like a superior life form, drove out the Proto-Indo-European system of indicating tenses by vowel changes.
To test this evolutionary premise, Aiden and Michel invented something they call culturomics, the use of huge amounts of digital information to track changes in language, culture and history. Their quest is the subject of “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture,” an entertaining tour of the authors’ big-data adventure.
In 2010, working with Google, they perfected the Ngram Viewer, which takes its name from the computer-science term for a word or phrase. This “robot historian,” as they call it, can search the 30 million volumes already digitized by Google Books and instantly generate a usage-frequency timeline for any word, phrase, date or name.
They graph, to take one example, the astounding career path of “chortle,” coined by Lewis Carroll in “Jabberwocky,” which has left its siblings “galumphing” and “frumious” in the dust.
A limitation of the Ngram Viewer is that it delivers the what and the when but not the why. Take the case of specific years. All years get attention as they approach, peak when they arrive, then taper off. Mentions of the year 1872 were down by half in 1896, a fade that took 23 years. The year 1973 completed the same trajectory in less than half the time.
“What caused that change?” the authors ask. “We don’t know. For now, all we have are the naked correlations.”
Someone else is going to have to do the heavy lifting.