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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'