Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Influence of The Simpsons on American Literature

An interesting little gadget I came across the other day is the Google Ngram viewer. Google has created a means to automatically scan some 5.2 million books, published between 1500 and 2008, and to graph the numbers of words or phrases within those books. Ngram Viewer Counting words in books has long been a (very laborious) means of analysing the development of languages, now it's a game anyone can play. 

This TED talk tells you about Ngram viewer. TED_what_we_learned_from_5_million_books

So now we can all play with this cool little gadget what can we do? The adoption of loan words, from foreign languages, is a typical language development. These days, within Europe, the English language words for new words are usually the ones adopted. But it was not always thus.  

For instance, there is a German word for computer, Rechner. But computer is more common. But it was not always thus, in the days before English became the lingua franca of technology, (before 1945 it was German) things were different. For example, the German word for Television is Fernsehen. This word, which was established in the 1930s, rather than the english word, has stuck. The same goes for older  established ones, Fahrrad shows little sign of being displaced by its english equivalent, bicycle. 

However, every now and again a word goes the other way. Such a word is Schadenfreude, the German word which is usually translated to, malicious joy (at the misfortune of someone else.) I first encountered the word by way of the Simpsons, the episode where Homer is enjoying the moment when the shop that his neighbour has opened closes down (which you can see here Homer's Schadenfreude ). 

Well a few moments with the Ngram viewer suggest that I wasn't the only one encountering the word (if not the sentiment) for the first time. That Simpson's episode was shown first in 1991. So, looking for Schadenfreude in the collection of American literature there's a big spike in 1996, (ngram Schadenfreude)  which, allowing for time for people to see the episode in re-runs, delays while various versions of the great American novel were written, rejected and rewritten, and finally published, shows, I think, a pretty good correlation. 

Even more interesting is that Schadenfreude enjoyed its popularity for 8 years and then fell back to its old level of usage during 2003. A correlation with the fading popularity of the Simpsons? I don't know. 

Another tantalising mystery, nothing to do with the Simpsons, is the German word Schuppen which my (very English) grandad used to use for the cow shed. This has the same meaning in German. A look at the Ngram viewer shows ngrams=Schuppen, a great spike around 1940 in the English language. What caused that? Refuges from Germany fleeing to England, German soldier prisoners working on English farms? Grandad is no longer around to ask and I have no clue how that particular loan word made its way into English, if only for a while.    

Like many really neat sources of information the ngram viewer raises as many questions as it answers, but hey, that's the fun of it. Enjoy!

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