In Chapter 7, we warn readers against the use of Google Books as a source on the historical use of words: Google Books does not contain everything that has ever been printed; it is biased in many directions (e.g. towards the English language), most of which are unknown. There are, however, corpora, generally built by linguists, that allow you to know inside which group of texts exactly you plot the use of this or that word, or you investigate which words were often used together. You can also choose to restrict your analysis to a part of the corpus (by author, say, or period). Those are also texts that have been checked and indexed by humans: they do not include errors due to optical character recognition and in most cases, they allow an analysis of grammatical categories. The drawback is, of course, that you can only explore what is in the corpus, i.e., often, something like the canon. But anyway, you cannot seriously count if you have not defined a perimeter of what you include and do not include.
Here we begin a list of pointers to corpora of this type. Do not hesitate to contribute, especially for other languages, by leaving a comment.
- Corpus of Historical American English: covers the 19th and 20th centuries. Offers comparisons with Google Books and with smaller corpora. This corpus is large and recent; it offers more search and analysis functions than many others. “The corpus contains texts from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers and non-fiction books, and is balanced by genre from decade to decade.”
- Early English Books Online covers the 1470s to 1690s. “The content covers literature, philosophy, politics, religion, geography, science and all other areas of human endeavor.”
- Frantext is a similar corpus for French (of France). Smaller, older but well updated as to tools for analysis, it is focused on the 17th-20th century and literary texts. Sadly enough, it is only available to subscribing institutions.
- For English, there are also large but more specialized historical corpora, e.g. British Parliamentary debates, US Supreme Court opinions, TIME magazine, or TV and movie corpora for the second half of the 20th century.