Playing with the Google Ngram Viewer

I’ve been playing with the Google ngram viewer. I wanted to test it’s features and the best way to test it was to use terms from my area of research.

I got some typical responses:


In this chart, there are no real surprises. The comparison of terms demonstrates the changes in how sign language was described – in the nineteenth century, “language of signs” was the accepted phrasing, the sharp growth of “sign language” corresponds with what we know about the rise of oralism, and American Sign Language is a relatively new term that differentiates ASL from other sign languages.  The introduction of signed systems in the twentieth century – is clear  here as well with the appearance of “Signed English”.

My next chart is a bit more interesting. I wanted to look at changing social perceptions using the Deaf Pride/Deaf President Now movements as key features. DPN was a dramatic, public protest in March 1988. The spike on the graph at this time is clear -but the secondary spike is interesting – clearly, after the event occurred – it became the subject of considerable discussion, though interest has waned. The concept of “Deaf rights” makes an appearance at this time, but does not appear as frequently. “Gallaudet” is difficult to parse out -the spikes don’t align with major events/moments with the university  – I wonder if there is confusion between the place / family name.


The final chart was a look at the growth of phrases of self-identification in the literature:


“Deaf community” is the phrase with the longest history. The growth of it’s usage in the 1960s lines up with the burst of sociological/linguistic study of deaf people as a group. The 1980-90s development of “Deaf culture” makes sense with the Deaf Pride movement and the DPN event – as well as a flurry of texts that adopted cultural/minority perspectives. “Signing people” is a new phrase (as evidenced by the graph).

So, again – no major surprises.

It’s a cool tool – but limiting. I found myself frustrated and wanting to search within a specific corpus of texts (ie books relevant to these subjects). Using specific search terms like “deaf” were ineffective because the word is used largely within literature without describing/pertaining to deaf PEOPLE. It would be cool to be able to look across deaf studies texts/articles/pedagogical materials and identify changing terms in conjunction with larger social changes.

2 thoughts on “Playing with the Google Ngram Viewer”

  1. I think the google n-gram viewer is super interesting, but you are right it has definite limitations. However, I think it provides a framework and a model for something that could be done on a much larger scale with more specific sources.

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