global English language technology

Google the verb


Our next guest post comes from Adam Kilgarriff. Adam is a linguist, and a specialist in the area where linguistics, computers and dictionaries meet. He was at Brighton University until 2004 when he set up his own company, Lexical Computing Ltd. He lives in Brighton, and will be taking a lunchtime swim in the sea today!


Google is an interesting verb. First, it is new, yet it is already fairly high-frequency. Second, most new words are nouns, so it is a pleasure to find a verb there, and appealing too as verbs do more, so there is more to explore about them. And third, most words are language-specific. Bread is an English word, and even if there is something that sounds the same in another language (e.g. Dutch brood, German das Brot), it is a different word. But in google it seems fair to say that we have a word that exists in most languages of the world.

Google has a standard English spelling and sound pattern. We have no difficulty adding endings, to give googling, googles, googled, or applying other add-ons to give googlebot, googlewhack, googleplex, googlers and googlebomb. It’s less straightforward in other languages. If we start with a near-neighbour, German uses u not double-o for the ‘oo’ sound, and does not have a silent e at the ends of words, so when Germans bring the verb into their language they are torn between the trademark spelling, and the spelling that fits with their language rules. All those alternatives combine to give four versions of the basic form (as witnessed in a large collection of German texts or ‘corpus’):

google, googel, googl, googele
five of the infinitive: googlen, googln, googeln, googleln, gugeln
five for the past participle: gegooglet, gegoogled, gegugelt, gegoogl, gegoogelt

with a grand total of no less than 34 variants.

That’s before we get idiomatic. Another common form in German was rumgooglen. A little investigation showed that this was a shortened version of herumgooglen, and it always occurred in phrases like ein bisschen rumgooglen, ‘to google around bit’.

For Italian the google family (as found in a big Italian corpus) looks like something from a textbook: googlo, googla, googlasse, googlare, googlato, googlò, googlando, and googlato. When Spanish adds pronouns into verbs, it does so for google too: googleadme (‘Google me’).

The Slav languages make subtle changes to the verb in terms of whether it is an ongoing or completed action by adding suffixes. In a large Slovak corpus we find:

googlovať     googlujú     googluj     gúgli     gúgliť     nagoogliť     pogooglovať     pregooglujú     negooglovali     vygoogliť     vygooglite     vygoogli     vygooglených     vygooglené     vygooglim     vygooglovať     vygooglujem     vygooglovaná     vygooglovali     vygooglovala     vygooglujeme     vygúglená     vygúgli     vygúglili     zagúglite

Welsh, like German, doesn’t use ‘oo’, but uses w instead, so googlebombing in Welsh is gwglbomio.

The Asian languages I looked at do not use verbs quite as we do: they make extensive use of the technique we use when we say I had a shower rather than I showered. So google in Telugu, Hindi, Chinese and Persian can be translated as ‘do google’. These languages do not use the latin alphabet (and Chinese does not use an alphabet at all). We found two forms of each variant in Chinese depending on whether the writer had chosen to use Google’s official Chinese name or to switch to the latin alphabet. Similarly in Greek we have γκούγκλαρα or googlαρα.

In sum, whatever you think of the search engine or the company, google is a rather likeable verb, particularly for linguists, as for them it’s like a newborn babe, wandering innocently out into the complex world of spelling, sound patterns, prefixes and suffixes and adapting to wherever it find itself.

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Adam Kilgarriff


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