ENG 170w – Digital Humanities

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Digital humanities is a new way to interpret literature and the humanities with a modern take. There is an argument prevalent in academic communities on whether or not these new digital tools are useful in interpreting and studying literature. Through the use of Google’s Ngram Viewer and Wordle, two tools that digitally analyze words found in literature, I will argue that digital humanities technologies are new useful innovations, but not the best way to interpret literature.

Google’s Ngram Viewer searches for a word in Google’s database of literature to find trends in a specific time period. This tool is extremely useful in that we can see how frequently words were used in specific time periods. For example, with my short story, I searched the word “natural disaster” and “earthquake.” For “earthquake” the word had fluctuated in usage all throughout the 200 year time period between 1800 and 2000s. The use of the word would rise and fall throughout the years, with no serious or significant drop (or rise) until the early 1900s. In the mid 1900s (1940-1970) the word was relatively stable in the frequency it was found in literature. The graph depicted an increase in the use of the word after 1970s, until early 1980s, when the frequency dropped again and eventually (seemingly) plateau-ed until the present day. For the words “natural disaster,” the graph was significantly different from the results of “earthquake.” The graph shows minimal change between 1800 to roughly 1920s. The graph indicated that the phrase was not significantly used in that time period, but after the 1920s, the phrase experienced a steady increase in usage and rose at a quick rate.

This graph created by the Ngram Viewer is very useful in seeing trends of words, but it doesn’t give any contextual background or explanation for the fluctuation of word frequency. So while the tool is useful, it doesn’t “go all the way” in the sense that it interprets the graph for the viewers also. It would serve as a good starting point for research and perhaps would give students a direction of inquiry, but the researcher will have to look up the history or social background of a certain time to understand why a word was used less often or more often. An interesting add on to the graph is the ability to search that phrase or word in the Google Books collection for certain time periods and it would give results of books that used in and where it was used in the book. This would allow for a more detailed research for students and offers a convenience for students who could now look for books electronically.

The Wordle is another tool that we used in our class. It searches through a specific text for words that were used most frequently. I believe that while the Wordle tool is graphically beautiful, it does not offer much for students in terms of quality in analyzation. With my own short story Wordle, the words that were the largest (indicating that they were most frequent) were names. Because my story is dialogue centric, it used a lot of character names and the tool would count each time the name was used. It is a useful tool in that students can compare which words were used most frequently and which less frequently, but it does not divulge much specific information about the content of the piece. We are given a basic gist or idea of what the passage or piece is about through large words (i.e. “murder,” “earthquake,” etc.) that allows students to see major themes, but quality does not mean quantity. For my story personally, I was surprised to see the words that showed up and perhaps dialogue centric stories would be a weak point for the Wordle program. Just reading the words that my Wordle generated, I could only see a very small connection between the words. If I had not read the story, I would be left more confused and the tool has the possibility of becoming detrimental or at the very least a hindrance to students who are doing research. Wordle can be used for an even more general (compared to Ngram, because at least Ngram shows trends over time) kind of research for students.

Of the two, Ngram seems to be a stronger tool than Wordle. Both tools allow students to see word trends, but do not provide students with a more in depth analysis. These tools would be useful for students to find a starting point of departure for their research, but does not offer substantial interpretations of literature.

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