Is Jane Eyre happy? Is Hamlet sad? You will never find that out with a Google search tool

This is a technology for which we have no use commensurate to its sophistication

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Well, whad’ya know – fewer writers used the word “theretofore” in the 1960s than used it in the 19th century; more employed the word “groovy”; the Second World War generated sadder words than the peace that followed it; American writers are more garrulous than we are, and no female character in any novel written by the Brontë sisters says “Whad’ya know”.

All this and more you can discover by using Google’s new n-gram tool, an omnivorous scanner which, to quote a couple of Google-struck professors of anthropology, “draws on a database of millions of books, in multiple languages, to show the annual popularity of any published word or phrase over the last several centuries”.

Wow! – another word you won’t find used by Jane Eyre – a million books, all waiting, at the click of a mouse, to yield whatever you want them to yield. Isn’t technology wonderful? For R Alexander Bentley and Michael J O’Brien, the theretofore mentioned professors, the n-gram tool has facilitated a study, just published, of the frequency of usage of what they call mood words – anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise, though not, I am saddened and surprised to note, “database”, which might not be a mood word in itself but induces a mood of anger and disgust in me. Some people reach for their revolver when they hear the word “culture”. I am a peaceable man. Only the word “database” makes me want to kill.

To the long list of technologies for which we have so far been unable to find a use commensurate to their sophistication – that is, just about all of them, apart from the internal combustion engine, the electric toothbrush and the espresso machine – we can now add Google’s n-gram tool. That which we already knew it merely confirms, and that which it might be of benefit to us to discover it is powerless to provide unless critically educated minds deploy it, and they have better things to do.

It might appear to be of passing interest to learn that “British literature” has become “less emotional” over the past half-century, but when that turns out to mean no more than that we’ve been using fewer of the mood words, anger, disgust, fear, etc than we used to, we realise we have learnt nothing. That I might be fearful or angry and not use the word fear or anger, that I might use the words but not necessarily feel the things they imperfectly denote, that a word in isolation, especially an abstract noun, gives little intimation of the temperature of an emotion – all this is so obvious I am embarrassed to say it. But the authors of this study do seem to have little understanding of how language works in the simplest social context, and no understanding at all of how it works in literature.

“I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth,” says Hamlet, an expression of low spirits which wouldn’t rase a blip on the n-gram screen if you’re looking for the word sad, but then if you’re looking for the word mirth you might think you’ve hit pay dirt, no matter that Hamlet is complaining that he’s lost his. But even then, should your database be so detailed as to have a “lost mirth” graph, you can’t be certain that Hamlet has indeed lost his just because he says he has. He’s a slippery prince, Hamlet, offering to show now more, now less, than he feels, in so far as he knows what he feels. He is also just down from university, which means he is familiar with the self-satisfaction that voicing existential angst can bring. “I have of late lost all my mirth” – a statement addressed to old university chums – could well be read as mirthful in itself.

As for “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day”, are we to take it as a meditation empty of emotion because not one of the requisite mood words makes an appearance? At one level it does indeed offer to be emotionless because Macbeth feels without the wherewithal any longer to feel – “There would have been a time for such a word”, but that time has gone – yet feeling you are without feeling is still feeling, and the numbed “signifying nothing” with which this brief soliloquy ends plumbs the deepest extremities of loss, no matter that the word itself is missing.

Well, Bentley and O’Brien are anthropologists and will say literature is not their sphere. The cheap shot would be “neither, then, are words”, but it’s not my intention to squabble with harmless academics sequestered in their laboratories with their n-grams and research grants. The futility of it interests me beyond the particular. We don’t ever, it seems, outgrow our fondness for toys; let someone come up with a tool or gadget more seductively ingenious than the last and we move heaven and earth to justify squandering our lives on it. Bentley and O’Brien’s researches into mood words answer no human need other than that prompted by the technology that enables it.

And there is another way their research returns to the internet the image of its own imperfections. Words as they describe them - literal, bare of irony or inflexion, blunt instruments of blunt meaning – are words as internet culture, ever democratic and in a hurry, encourages us to use them. There are, of course, exceptions – good writers we wouldn’t know of but for blogs, instances of the old worn-out fiefdoms of political and intellectual punditry being stormed. But just as interpersonal brutality is intrinsic to the social media, so is linguistic brutality intrinsic to the internet’s community of comment and counter-comment. The best of conversation is not opinion; the best of language is not statement. In literature, words don’t say; they find. And “find” means something different in Google-land.

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