Google Ngram of the Arctic


Google Ngram is a nifty tool that’s part of Google Books. It allows you to search any keyword going back hundreds of years in time across multiple “corpuses,” which are essentially millions of texts that Google has digitized in various languages. Essentially, Google Ngram can be perceived of as a way of quantifying culture. Running the word “Arctic” through Google Ngram across these four corpuses reveals widely divergent trends, which we can generalize to represent changes in the Arctic’s cultural prominence in four countries: the UK, USA, China, and Russia.

In the chart above, the corpuses are as follows:

  • eng_gb_2012: British English
  • eng_us_2012: American English
  • chi_sim_2012 : Simplified Chinese
  • rus_2012: Russian

In the UK, the Arctic reached its cultural apex at the end of the 1870s as fervor about polar exploration spread. The English press reported back on all of the expeditions going on at the time, such as the British Arctic Expedition, which from 1875-1876 tried and failed to reach the North Pole. Interest in the Arctic then declined sharply right before 1900. It rose again from the 1940s through 1960s, when the Cold War turned the Arctic into a frozen battleground. The late 1990s, during which climate change became an issue of international concern, also saw the word “Arctic” mentioned more frequently – only for it to surprisingly drop off sharply in the early 2000s.

In the US, as in Britain, usage of the word also rose in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1870, the US Congress bankrolled the Polaris expedition led by Charles Francis Hall, who sought to reach the North Pole after two previous Arctic expeditions. Mention of the word “Arctic” leveled off in American English until World War II. From 1941-1945, so-called Arctic convoys began sailing with critical goods and supplies from ports in the US, UK, and Iceland to northwest Russia as part of the Lend-Lease program. The Arctic continued to be mentioned in the US (and UK) during the first few decades of the Cold War, while it decreased in frequency in the Russian corpus – possibly suggesting that the US and UK were more fixated on the region as a potential battlefield than the Red Army.

Collection of English-language books about the Arctic published in the 1870s. © Bonhams.

In Russia, usage of the word “Arctic,” or “Aрктика,” peaked right before the war. This is commensurate with the Soviet campaign in the 1930s to develop the country’s vast northern reaches, overseen by the state agency Glavsevmorput – the “Commissariat of Ice.” Stalin led the push northward, which manifested itself in explorations, scientific expeditions, pop culture, and, infamously, the construction of hundreds of gulags. Soviet activities in the Arctic during this time are explained in detail in the book “The Red Arctic: Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 1932-1939.” The onset of the war, however, brought the USSR’s activities to a sudden halt, and the usage of the word “Aрктика” has never reached its former heights. (Of course, one has to take the Russian results with a grain of salt: in Russian language, it might be more common to refer to various parts of the country – i.e. Chukotka or the Yamal Peninsula – rather than the “Arctic” per se.)

endofworldChina’s interest in the Arctic peaked in 1960, much later than the three aforementioned countries. I multiplied China’s results for the Arctic (北极 地区) by ten since the word is mentioned less frequently in Chinese texts than it is in British, American, and Russian ones. This makes it easier to compare the frequency of the usage in China with the other three countries in one chart. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why mentions of the Arctic in Chinese might have risen in the early ’60s except for the fact that this was when the country began to develop its Antarctic Policy. China signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1960, too. The frequency of the word “Arctic” rose again in the mid-1970s, only to decline again thereafter. Then, beginning around 2000, use of the word “Arctic” dramatically increased. The region has become more visible in Chinese popular culture, from books to television shows to tourism. Surprisingly, this rise is unmatched by the Russian, British, and American corpuses. We could therefore surmise that Chinese interest in the Arctic – at least within literature – is growing a) at an unprecedented rate for China and b) at a rate faster than in three more traditional Arctic states. This sudden increase in interest the region might explain why certain states more traditionally perceived as “Arctic” are uncomfortable with China’s activities, which may have come seemingly out of nowhere even though, as the Ngram shows, they have historical roots stretching back at least to the 1960s).

To summarize, British and American interest in the Arctic is barely rising, if at all. It is nowhere near as high as it was during the 1870s and 1880s, when polar exploration was in its heyday. Chinese interest is rising, and Russia has remained mildly and steadily disinterested, relatively speaking, since 1940.

It would be interesting if Google Ngram were to digitize corpuses specifically for, say, Canadian or Norwegian literature. I wonder how the results would pan out there given that those two countries’ governments are some of the most pro-active in the Arctic. What the Ngram reminds, however, us is that hype about the Arctic perpetrated by the media, foreign ministries, and corporations is not necessarily matched by the larger group of writers and authors in any given country, let alone the overall population.

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