Keywords Across Disciplines

Russon Wooldridge

University of Toronto

© 2004 Russon Wooldridge


The study of human communication brings together specialists from many disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology or political science, but first of all linguistics, since human communication takes place primarily through language. A tool that has gained vital importance in the last few years is keywords. Meaning and structure are given to the World Wide Web by the use of keywords in search engines. The headword of the author-driven formalized dictionary has to a large extent given way to the keyword of the user of the Web-as-dictionary.

The following will examine the case of the word altermondialisation, of particular interest to socio-political scientists and lexicographers.

1. Exploration of the Web with Google

Why altermondialisation? The author of these lines and reader of the French press came across the following heading in Le Monde of 19 August 2003, a couple of months before the World Trade Organization (OMC in French) was due to meet in Cancun: A quick Google search of the heading's first term in the Web found, among other things, a blog by Andrew Boucher: So we have several terms: the noun altermondialisation, based on the paradigm mondialisation, antimondialisation; an adjective altermondialiste to describe things relating to the phenomenon; a noun altermondialiste or, especially, altermondialistes for its supporters; and another noun altermondialisme to denote the beliefs of these last.

What is the currency of these terms? Google produced the following figures for the French-language pages of the Web of 8 September 2003:

The antis are still in the majority for the base word in -isation, but the alters (abbreviation of altermondialistes used by the left-wing newspaper Libération in October-November 2003) are in the majority for -iste and -isme. L'altermondialisme is more of an ideology than l'antimondialisme.

We have just seen a synchronic snapshot. The Web is also very revealing of the diachronic aspect of the subject. The idea of "another form, or type, of globalization" didn't wait for the term altermondialisation to appear. The Monde diplomatique site has an attestation dated 1999 of "l'autre mondialisation" ("L'autre mondialisation. Depuis quelques années, des voix s'élèvent pour dénoncer la «pensée unique» néo-libérale. Comment cette contestation est-elle devenue un phénomène planétaire? Quelles sont les solutions alternatives?"); the site of the altermondialist ocganization Attac66 talks on 9 May 2000 of "une alternative citoyenne à la mondialisation"; Wikipédia ("L'Encyclopédie libre") dates the movement back to the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999; Jean-Louis Bourque, in L'Action nationale of September 2002, writes a long article on "Voyage au coeur de la mondialisation", including a final section on "Pour une autre mondialisation".

As for the terms which crystallized the concept, altermondialisation can be dated on the Web back to 3 January 2002 (document entitled "Manifeste Initiatique Révolutionnaire"; Libération's archives give 21 March 2002; those of Le Monde give the word on 8 June 2002); the noun altermondialistes is used in an opinion piece on 18 December 2001 (Libération, 21 March 2002); the adjective altermondialiste is used by the Communist newspaper L'Humanité on 2 February 2002 (Libération, 2 November 2002); altermondialisme occurs on 23 July 2002 on (Libération, 18 March 2003).

2. Discovery in databases with TACT and TACTweb

Google is very powerful for finding occurrences of what one knows, but is powerless to reveal what other words use the prefix alter- or the suffix -isation. For that, one has to build one's own database and search it with regular-expression retrieval software such as TACT and TACTweb.

Let us take as a small demonstration corpus the article by Jean-Louis Bourque mentioned above. A search on the string alter- is not interesting since the French doesn't have a paradigm of words thus prefixed, the meaning of the term being self-evident from such words as altérité ("otherness") or alter ego; the etymological link between the Latin alter and the French autre is also obvious. On the other hand the prefix anti- occurs several times, in anti-mondialistes (2), anti-mondialisation (4) and anti-OMC (1). The suffix -isation, however, presents a more varied case. Upon reading

I want to know what other -isation words Bourque uses. PC-based TACT and the web version TACTweb produce the following list for occurrences of the search string .*isation in an indexed database of Bourque's article (frequencies in parentheses): A rich harvest. Bourque's polemical article uses a large number of closely or loosely associated words in -isation denoting processes affecting the whole planet or large parts of it; for example: américanisation, capitalisation, colonisation, commercialisation, dollarisation, globalisation, libéralisation, marchandisation, mcdonaldisation, mondialisation, standardisation. The selection of items and the associations between them made by the historian, the sociologist, the political scientist, the mediologist, and so on, will vary, but the starting point is useful to all.

The discoveries yielded up by TACT/TACTweb can then be explored on the Web with Google. None of the quoted words used by Bourque are idiolectal. To take the case of mcdonaldisation, here is what Google came up with on the Web of 14 September 2003:

Ideologies and systems can be studied through words ending in -isme. The Bourque database contains the following words in -isme:

TACT/TACTweb has other features. The distribution graph for -isation shows that 35 (25.7%) of the total of 136 word tokens occur in the section on "Qu'est-ce que la mondialisation?" (12.3% or 1,515 of a total of 12,286 words of text); 10 (23.3%) of the -isme words occur in the same section.


This brief demonstration is sufficient, I hope, to show the complementarity of high-powered simple Web exploration and sophisticated discovery in smaller-scale databases (which can nevertheless be the size of a multi-volume dictionary, or the complete canonical works of the Ancien Régime theatre, or a compendium of Renaissance treatises on architecture, hunting and numerology, i.e. up to several million words). All disciplines use words, all have terminologies.

Further details on the above can be found elsewhere: