The name “Emperor Haile Selassie” appeared in books in the late 1920s, long before the famed Battle of Adwa, an important event in Ethiopian history debuted in the early 1950s. And names like Abebe Bikila and Empress Menen were in Western books long way before the likes of Burkina Faso and Zambia were in Western literature.

Do you want to know more? Fairly easy by using a new online tool developed by Google called the Ngram Viewer. This tool lets you trace the usage of  any word or phrase during the past three centuries–three centuries!–by seeing how often it’s appeared in books written in English of three versions, Russian German, Spanish, French and Chinese over that time span. How many famous Ethiopian names never make it into Western books? Is our three thousand history discourse has a place in the Western literature? These were some of the questions that I have raised when I first heard the news that Google has launched this new online tool. I am sure this massive searchable database will be key to a new era of research in the humanities, linguistics and social sciences as a lot of academicians in universities always fall in arguments for the use of words out of context. Google has given us a solution.

In my experiments to test the database, I have found that the likes of Axum, Harar and Emperor Menelik enter in the English language literature relatively early, which makes me to believe Ethiopians are well documented in the Western Literature. But most of famous words which describe some historical places or people do not appear on Western books. The database comprises more than 5m books – both fiction and non-fiction – published between 1800 and 2000, representing around 4% of all the books ever printed.

The tool can tell you how frequently a certain word or phrase or a name of a certain figure has shown up in books, it can’t tell you why. Nor can it necessarily explain the meaning of that word or phrase at the time it was used. So discovering that some of the words that are used to denigrate people first appeared in books in the mid-18th century is interesting, but did it mean the same to an 18 century reader that it does to someone in this digital era?

You can, however, select a certain year or range of years to view a page that lists the books with your chosen word or phrase. By clicking on a specific book you can see the actually digitized pages, which in some cases can provide a bit of insight into how the word was used at the time.

Though Ngram Viewer sounds like a tool more for scholars and linguists, anyone who is interested for words and the history and evolution of language should try it.Here is the link


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