Word-by-Word Pictures of the History of English

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Mike Kinde of Ideas Illustrated color-coded paragraphs of text to create little portraits of where our language comes from.

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Every English sentence is a mutt. Our modern words have immigrated from Old English, Old French, Latin, and dozens other languages to a lesser extent. They've all assimilated so nicely that we don't take note of their foreign origins. They're all just English.

What if when we spoke or wrote we knew those origins? What would our language look like? That's what Mike Kinde, the writer of the website Ideas Illustrated set out to do in a little vizualization project. Kinde plugged paragraphs of text into Douglas Harper's etymology dictionary and then coded, word by word, the results to create a visual picture of the paragraphs origins. On the site, you can click through each coded word to its entry in the dictionary. Above, is the result for an excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Not an etymological expert, Kinde warns that his transcription may not be perfect.)

The colorful results made for easy comparisons across kinds of writing (Kinde includes British English, sports writing, and legal excerpts in his post). For example, this paragraph on medicine shows how much that field employs words from Latin and Greek:

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In processing his sample paragraphs, Kinde made a few nice discoveries. In particular, he writes that he loves how a sports writer relied on words that come from Old Norse ("scary" and "crazy") to describe a game's windy and rainy weather conditions. "It provides a certain primal, unhinged quality to the situation," he writes.

Kinde writes that he had hoped to create an app that could code the paragraphs on its own, but that the actual process involved too much "manual intervention" for him to automate. It's still on his to-do list, though, he says in the comments on the post.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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