Fun with Google’s N-Gram Viewer for my C18th students

Just the other day I was preparing to teach Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). Usually, I ask students to try to historicise the meanings of the word ‘sentimental’, in effect placing it within the broader culture of sensibility. This year, wondering how I might emphasise how new and even fashionable the word sentimental became in the latter half of the century, I thought of Google’s N-Gram Viewer. I’d seen this in action in relation to the eighteenth-century on the Persistent Enlightenment blog. So  I thought I’d give it a go:

ngramsentimental

There’s a gratfyingly significant rise from around the 1750s (and a small dip around the 1790s when sentimentalism was perceived in Britain to be associated with the radical levelling tendencies of the French Revolution). Of course this does not give us insight into the meanings of the word, but Google also offers links to the word’s place in the source material so that I hope my students can look at the word in context. It’s also useful when used in context with title searches on ESTC.

On another note, and since my students also engage with eighteenth-century contextual material from ECCO, I’ve often warned that the practice of capitalising certain words did not necessarily indicate particular significance, and that this was more often a printer’s convention for certain nouns that gradually died away towards the end of the century. The N-Gram Viewer is case-sensitive, so to search for different cases I clicked ‘case-insensitive’ and searched for ‘virtue’ between 1700 and 1799:

ngramvirtue

It’s great to see that cross-over so clearly. Clearly, the idea of virtue wasn’t going out of fashion, but the fashion for capitalising it was.

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4 thoughts on “Fun with Google’s N-Gram Viewer for my C18th students

  1. Wonderful stuff. I’m hoping to use N-Gram for teaching. I didn’t know about the case-sensitive aspect, so I’ve learned a lot!!

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  2. Glad you liked it. My excercise was, admittedly, pretty simple in that I was asking it questions to which I suspected the answer. They were questions, moreover, I thought the N-Gram Viewer could answer given the limitations of Google’s digitization.

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