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Big Data Becomes a Mirror

‘Uncharted,’ by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel

Books of The Times

By WILLIAM GRIMES DEC. 24, 2013

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Why do English speakers say “drove” rather than “drived”?

As graduate students at the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics about eight years ago, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel pondered the matter and decided that something like natural selection might be at work. In English, the “-ed” past-tense ending of Proto-Germanic, like a superior life form, drove out the Proto-Indo-European system of indicating tenses by vowel changes. Only the small class of verbs we know as irregular managed to resist.

To test this evolutionary premise, Mr. Aiden and Mr. Michel wound up inventing something they call culturomics, the use of huge amounts of digital information to track changes in language, culture and history. Their quest is the subject of “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture,” an entertaining tour of the authors’ big-data adventure, whose implications they wildly oversell.

To tackle the drived/drove question, Mr. Aiden and Mr. Michel assigned two undergraduates to read every textbook on historical English grammar, compile a list of irregular verbs and follow their fortunes through the centuries. The students turned up 177 irregular verbs in Old English, a number that declined to 145 in Middle English (the language of Chaucer) and to 98 in modern English. Of the original Old English irregulars, the 12 most frequently used verbs stayed irregular, while 11 out of the 12 least frequently used verbs made the changeover. Only “slink” held the line.

“The data had spoken,” the authors write. “Something akin to natural selection was influencing human culture, leaving its fingerprints among the verbs. Usage frequency was having an extraordinarily strong effect on verb survival, making the difference between the verbs that were mourn/mourned and the verbs that were fit/fit to survive.”

Photo Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Invigorated by the great verb chase, Mr. Aiden and Mr. Michel went hunting for bigger game. Given a large enough storehouse of words and a fine filter, would it be possible to see cultural change at the micro level, to follow minute fluctuations in human thought processes and activities? Tiny factoids, multiplied endlessly, might assume imposing dimensions.

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