Google has just come up with a great product called the Ngram Viewer (discussed in this equally fascinating TED video). What the Ngram Viewer does is to give users around the world the ability to sit at home and search through a database of billions of texts. These texts have been scanned into the Google database from all the books published in the world to date. Among other things, what this gives us is the power to discover the rate of occurrence of certain words, phrases or names in publishing history. Extremely fascinating, right?

I have been playing around with the program and here is my first experiment: to figure out which of these men in Nigerian political/social history is most frequently referenced in text, and since when. The men are Olusegun Obasanjo (who ruled the country for a record 11 years and played a crucial role in its political history), Chinua Achebe – Africa’s foremost novelist whose first 1958 novel Things Fall Apart is the most widely translated texts in English literature from Africa, Wole Soyinka – the continent’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and finally Obafemi Awolowo – nationalist, politician and visionary. The result is stunning and will offer nuggets for discussion among people who have argued (many times without proof) that one person was more famous than the other.

There are a few more I have tried out. This graph showed that the word “nigger” got more usage in the mid 1800s (just after Lincoln set the slaves free, which made sense), dropped in usage in the 1980s, and is now coming back into use after the year 2000. Go figure. The word “nigga” however is a totally different matter. The word “Republicans” was initially more famous than “Democrats” but eventually fell around 1900 and has remained stably lower ever since. And what about languages/cultures? This graph shows how much the African languages/cultures Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Swahili, Twi, Edo, and Zulu have featured in texts through time.  Fascinating result, and not only because Yoruba leads the pack with a clear margin! Yoruba is not the biggest language/culture in Africa. The word “Nigeria”, according to the Ngram has been in use/print since around 1860 (contrary to what we have been told) although it finally gained currency at the beginning of 1900s. Finally, I did a search on my favourite comedians: George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor. The result puts Bill Cosby on top and George Carlin at the bottom. Oh well.

What Google has done with this project called the Ngram Viewer (I say again, an extremely fascinating project) is to endow the world with a new great tool to do anthropology and study history with nothing but access to the internet. Life, and history, just became even more enlightening.

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