Sometime last week I came across the latest fancy online tool from Google Labs – the Google Books Ngram Viewer. At first I thought it was just an advanced pastime, perhaps with the potential for interesting uses, but did not think of how to put it use. Then, over the weekend I came across this zunguzung post, which uses Ngram to recreate the history of race in the 20th century (really worth having a look!). It was then that I thought of doing a similar thing – albeit in a much more simplified and less detailed version – with some “Africa” and “African studies” related topics.
Here are some examples:
First, and although not really unique to Africa, I though of comparing some of terms used in academia to speak of different societies. This is the result:
“Primitive peoples” was (luckily) never extremely popular and declined from the early 1920s-1930s; as for “ethnic groups”, its popularity “boom” took place in the 1960s. The now derided word “tribe” however remains the most popular one, although it has experienced a clear decline (perhaps its popularity is due to its uses in other contexts – such as “urban tribes” or Roman history.
Then I tried a much more specific comparison using the two ideologies I analysed and compared on my Masters thesis: “African Socialism” and “ubuntu”
The result is largely what I expected – although the “African Socialism” boom is greater than I thought, and its “spiky” decline is interesting. A bigger surprise was the small “boom” of “ubuntu” at the turn of the 20th century – much earlier than the uses I have come across – which relate to the post-apartheid context (where “ubuntu” popularity markedly increases). Can someone enlighten me on this early appearance?
Finally, I went for two “popularity contests”: among Anglophone African nations,
In which South Africa clearly leads the pack, with Nigeria and Kenya going neck-and-neck during the early part of the century, after which Nigeria took off.
And one for political leaders:
Here again, the results were largely what I expected. Nkrumah was the unchallenged “most popular” political leader during the 1960s, 1970s and first half of the 1980s; after which Mandela’s rise eclipses all other figures.
Ngram then, provides a curious – although not scientific – way of exploring how words, people, places and concepts became more or less popular across decades.
So, have you come up with more exciting comparisons? If so, please post the link to it on the comment section. And if not, have a go at it, it is entertaining and may throw some surprises…