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Before end-of-semester madness, I was looking at how shifts in vocabulary usage occur. In many cases, I found, vocabulary change doesn’t happen evenly across across all authors. Instead, it can happen generationally; older people tend to use words at the rate that was common in their youth, and younger people anticipate future word patterns. An eighty-year-old in 1880 uses a world like “outside” more like a 40-year-old in 1840 than he does like a 40-year-old in 1880. The original post has a more detailed explanation.

Let’s start with two self-evident facts about how print culture changes over time:

  1. The words that writers use change. Some words flare into usage and then back out; others steadily grow in popularity; others slowly fade out of the language.
  2. The writers using words change. Some writers retire or die, some hit mid-career spurts of productivity, and every year hundreds of new writers burst onto the scene. In the 19th-century US, median author age stays within a few years of 49: that constancy, year after year, means the supply of writers is constantly being replenished from the next generation.

When I first thought about using digital texts to track shifts in language usage over time, the largest reliable repository of e-texts was Project Gutenberg. I quickly found out, though, that they didn’t have works for years, somewhat to my surprise. (It’s remarkable how much metadata holds this sort of work back, rather than data itself). They did, though, have one kind of year information: author birth dates. You can use those to create same type of charts of word use over time that people like me, the Victorian Books project, or the Culturomists have been doing, but in a different dimension: we can see how all the authors born in a year use language rather than looking at how books published in a year use language.

Author Ages Mar 24 2011

Back from Venice (which is plastered with posters for “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” making a DH-free vacation that much harder), done grading papers, MAW paper presented. That frees up some time for data. So let me start off looking at a new pool for book data for a little while that I think is really interesting.