TIME magazine is a treasure trove of information on American politics and culture since 1923. You want to write a paper on it, TIME probably has an article about it. While clicking on article after article on the magazine’s online archive will produce many historical facts and observations, TIME has one source that many people overlook: the actual words used in the articles.
This is where the TIME Magazine Corpus of American English comes in. Created in 2007 by Mark Davies, a linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, users can search the magazine for words from 1923 to 2006.
But first, what exactly is a corpus? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a collection of recorded utterances” that can be used to analyze a language. Instead of using audio to analyze American English in TIME, users look at the frequency of certain words or their context.
This is where the research starts. (If you were confused like I was as to what “KWIC” stands for or what a “POS List” is, the little question marks make a world of difference.) First, chose a display. “List” looks like a spreadsheet, with a column for each decade and a row for the number of times the word was mentioned. If you click on the number, you can actually see the word in context in the screen below and the date it was used.
“Chart” shows the same data in bar graph form, which is more useful for actually visualizing the information to see when the word was used the most. Again, if you click on one of the bars for a certain year, you can see the context each time it was used in the bottom window. This is actually called “Keyword in Context,” or KWIC, which is the third display option. All of the different colors and outline or no outline indicates parts of speech.
The last display option, “Compare,” allows you to compare nearby words for two different words.
Now for the search string. If you want to get really advanced, the question mark next to “Word(s)” shows all the symbols needed to make a simple search more exact. For example, searching [=bright] would give you all the synonyms for “bright.”
The collocates box allows you to search in the surrounding context of the word, and you determine how “far away” the search should take place. The “POS List” allows you to chose the part of speech (POS) you’re searching for.
In “Sections,” you are able to chose the range of dates you want the corpus to search, by individual years or by decades. Finally, in “Sorting and Limits,” you can chose how to sort out the information (frequency, relevancy and alphabetically) and the minimum number of times a word must show up to appear in the results. Choosing “mutual info” for “minimum” will take out common words like “a” and “the.”
It’s a lot to sort through, (and I’m sure there’s something I missed) but all the different options allow you to refine your search, which I’m sure is great if you’re a linguist. If you played around with the corpus enough, you might have noticed that after 10 to 15 searches, you have to register for an account. It’s free and it saves all your past searches, which is really useful.
It’s obvious how linguists can use this site, but what about historians? The words linguists use to track the change of languages can be used by historians to track the change of American society. Take the word “web,” for example. It’s interesting to see where the word changes from being an intricate pattern to the World Wide Web.
Looking at these changes can help us ask new questions. I searched “groovy,” (my dad’s suggestion) and found that the word made a come-back in the 2000s from the 1960s. Why was “groovy” reappearing in TIME magazine? What does that say about our culture in the 2000s compared to the 1960s? What other similarities might there be between the two decades?
What other ways can historians utilize the corpus? Is it a more effective tool when you know what you’re looking for, like my example of “web?” Can you think of any search tools that would make the site more useful for historians? Did you discover anything interesting when playing around with the site?