The differentiation of literary and nonliterary diction, 1700-1900.

When you stumble on an interesting problem, the question arises: do you blog the problem itself — or wait until you have a full solution to publish as an article?

In this case, I think the problem is too big to be solved by a single person anyway, so I might as well get it out there where we can all chip away at it. At the end of this post, I include a link to a page where you can also download the data and code I’m using.

When we compare groups of texts, we’re often interested in characterizing the contrast between them. But instead of characterizing the contrast, you could also just measure the distance between categories. For instance, you could generate a list of word frequencies for two genres, and then run a Spearman’s correlation test, to measure the rank-order similarity of their diction.

In isolation, a measure of similarity between two genres is hard to interpret. But if you run the test repeatedly to compare genres at different points in time, the changes can tell you when the diction of the genres becomes more or less similar.

Spearman similarity to nonfiction, measured at 5-year intervals. At each interval, a 39-year chunk of the collection (19 years on either side of the midpoint) is being selected for comparison.


In the graph above, I’ve done that with four genres, in a collection of 3,724 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century volumes (constructed in part by TCP and in part by Jordan Sellers — see acknowledgments), using the 10,000 most frequent words in the collection, excluding proper nouns. The black line at the top is flat, because nonfiction is always similar to itself. But the other lines decline as poetry, drama, and fiction become progressively less similar to nonfiction where word choice is concerned. Unsurprisingly, prose fiction is always more similar to nonfiction than poetry is. But the steady decline in the similarity of all three genres to nonfiction is interesting. Literary histories of this period have tended to pivot on William Wordsworth’s rebellion against a specialized “poetic diction” — a story that would seem to suggest that the diction of 19c poetry should be less different from prose than 18c poetry had been. But that’s not the pattern we’re seeing here: instead it appears that a differentiation was setting in between literary and nonliterary language.

This should be described as a differentiation of “diction” rather than style. To separate style from content (for instance to determine authorship) you need to focus on the frequencies of common words. But when critics discuss “diction,” they’re equally interested, I think, in common and less common words — and that’s the kind of measure of similarity that Spearman’s correlation will give you (Kilgarriff 2001).

The graph above makes it look as though nonfiction was remaining constant while other genres drifted away from it. But we are after all graphing a comparison with two sides. This raises the question: were poetry, fiction, and drama changing relative to nonfiction, or was nonfiction changing relative to them? But of course the answer is “both.”

At each 5-year interval, the Spearman similarity is being measured between the 40-year span surrounding that point and the period 1700-1740.


Here we’re comparing each genre to its own past. The language of nonfiction changes somewhat more rapidly than the language of the other genres, but none of them remain constant. There is no fixed reference point in this world, which is why I’m talking about the “differentiation” of two categories. But even granting that, we might want to pose another skeptical question: when literary genres become less like nonfiction, is that merely a sign of some instability in the definition of “nonfiction”? Did it happen mostly because, say, the nineteenth century started to publish on specialized scientific topics? We can address this question to some extent by selecting a more tightly defined subset of nonfiction as a reference point — say, biographies, letters, and orations.

The Spearman similarities here happen to be generated on the top 5000 words rather than the top 10000, but I have tried both wordsets and it makes very little difference.


Even when we focus on this relatively stable category, we see significant differentiation. Two final skeptical questions need addressing before I try to explain what happened. First, I’ve been graphing results so far as solid lines, because our eyes can’t sort out individual data points for four different variables at once. But a numerically savvy reader will want to see some distributions and error bars before assessing the significance of these results. So here are yearly values for fiction. In some cases these are individual works of fiction, though when there are two or more works of fiction in a single year they have been summed and treated as a group. Each year of fiction is being compared against biographies, letters, and orations for 19 years on either side.

That’s a fairly persuasive trend. You may, however, notice that the Spearman similarities for individual years on this graph are about .1 lower than they were when we graphed fiction as a 39-year moving window. In principle Spearman similarity is independent of corpus size, but it can be affected by the diversity of a corpus. The similarity between two individual texts is generally going to be lower than the similarity between two large and diverse corpora. So could the changes we’ve seen be produced by changes in corpus size? There could be some effect, but I don’t think it’s large enough to explain the phenomenon. [See update at the bottom of this post. The results are in fact even clearer when you keep corpus size constant. -Ed.] The sizes of the corpora for different genres don’t change in a way that would produce the observed decreases in similarity; the fiction corpus, in particular, gets larger as it gets less like nonfiction. Meanwhile, it is at the same time becoming more like poetry. We’re dealing with some factor beyond corpus size.

So how then do we explain the differentiation of literary and nonliterary diction? As I started by saying, I don’t expect to provide a complete answer: I’m raising a question. But I can offer a few initial leads. In some ways it’s not surprising that novels would gradually become less like biographies and letters. The novel began very much as faked biography and faked correspondence. Over the course of the period 1700-1900 the novel developed a sharper generic identity, and one might expect it to develop a distinct diction. But the fact that poetry and drama seem to have experienced a similar shift (together with the fact that literary genres don’t seem to have diverged significantly from each other) begins to suggest that we’re looking at the emergence of a distinctively “literary” diction in this period.

To investigate the character of that diction, we need to compare the vocabulary of genres at many different points. If we just compared late-nineteenth-century fiction to late-nineteenth-century nonfiction, we would get the vocabulary that characterized fiction at that moment, but we wouldn’t know which aspects of it were really new. I’ve done that on the side here, using the Mann-Whitney rho test I described in an earlier post. As you’ll see, the words that distinguish fiction from nonfiction from 1850 to 1900 are essentially a list of pronouns and verbs used to describe personal interaction. But that is true to some extent about fiction in any period. We want to know what aspects of diction had changed.

In other words, we want to find the words that became overrepresented in fiction as fiction was becoming less like nonfiction prose. To find them, I compared fiction to nonfiction at five-year intervals between 1720 and 1880. At each interval I selected a 39-year slice of the collection and ranked words according to the extent to which they were consistently more prominent in fiction than nonfiction (using Mann-Whitney rho). After moving through the whole timeline you end up with a curve for each word that plots the degree to which it is over or under-represented in fiction over time. Then you sort the words to find ones that tend to become more common in fiction as the whole genre becomes less like nonfiction. (Technically, you’re looking for an inverse Pearson’s correlation, over time, between the Mann-Whitney rho for this word and the Spearman’s similarity between genres.) Here’s a list of the top 60 words you find when you do that:


It’s not hard to see that there are a lot of words for emotional conflict here (“horror, courage, confused, eager, anxious, despair, sorrow, dread, agony”). But I would say that emotion is just one aspect of a more general emphasis on subjectivity, ranging from verbs of perception (“listen, listened, watched, seemed, feel, felt”) to explicitly psychological vocabulary (“nerves, mind, unconscious, image, perception”) to questions about the accuracy of perception (“dream, real, sight, blind, forget, forgot, mystery, mistake”). To be sure, there are other kinds of words in the list (“cottage, boy, carriage”). But since we’re looking at a change across a period of 200 years, I’m actually rather stunned by the thematic coherence of the list. For good measure, here are words that became relatively less common in fiction (or more common in nonfiction — that’s the meaning of “relatively”) as the two genres differentiated:


Looking at that list, I’m willing to venture out on a limb and suggest that fiction was specializing in subjectivity while nonfiction was tending to view the world from an increasingly social perspective (“executive, population, colonists, department, european, colonists, settlers, number, individuals, average.”)

Now, I don’t pretend to have solved this whole problem. First of all, the lists I just presented are based on fiction; I haven’t yet assessed whether there’s really a shared “literary diction” that unites fiction with poetry and drama. Jordan and I probably need to build up our collection a bit before we’ll know. Also, the technique I just used to select lists of words looks for correlations across the whole period 1700-1900, so it’s going to select words that have a relatively continuous pattern of change throughout this period. But it’s also entirely possible that “the differentiation of literary and nonliterary diction” was a phenomenon composed of several different, overlapping changes with a smaller “wavelength” on the time axis. So I would say that there’s lots of room here for alternate/additional explanations.

But really, this is a question that does need explanation. Literary scholars may hate the idea of “counting words,” but arguments about a distinctively “literary” language have been central to literary criticism from John Dryden to the Russian Formalists. If we can historicize that phenomenon — if we can show that a systematic distinction between literary and nonliterary language emerged at a particular moment for particular reasons — it’s a result that ought to have significance even for literary scholars who don’t consider themselves digital humanists.

By the way, I think I do know why the results I’m presenting here don’t line up with our received impression that “poetic diction” is an eighteenth-century phenomenon that fades in the 19c. There is a two-part answer. For one thing, part of what we perceive as poetic diction in the 18c is orthography (“o’er”, “silv’ry”). In this collection, I have deliberately normalized orthography, so “silv’ry” is treated as equivalent to “silvery,” and that aspect of “poetic diction” is factored out.

But we may also miss differentiation because we wrongly assume that plain or vivid language cannot be itself a form of specialization. Poetic diction probably did become more accessible in the 19c than it had been in the 18c. But this isn’t the same thing as saying that it became less specialized! A self-consciously plain or restricted diction still counts as a mode of specialization relative to other written genres. More on this in a week or two …

Finally, let me acknowledge that the work I’m doing here is built on a collaborative foundation. Laura Mandell helped me obtain the TCP-ECCO volumes before they were public, and Jordan Sellers selected most of the nineteenth-century collection on which this work is based — something over 1,600 volumes. While Jordan and I were building this collection, we were also in conversation with Loretta Auvil, Boris Capitanu, Tanya Clement, Ryan Heuser, Matt Jockers, Long Le-Khac, Ben Schmidt, and John Unsworth, and were learning from them how to do this whole “text mining” thing. The R/MySQL infrastructure for this is pretty directly modeled on Ben’s. Also, since the work was built on a collaborative foundation, I’m going to try to give back by sharing links to my data and code on this “Open Data” page.

References
Adam Kilgarriff, “Comparing Corpora,” International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 6.1 (2001): 97-133.

[UPDATE Monday Feb 27th, 7 pm: After reading Ben Schmidt's comment below, I realized that I really had to normalize corpus size. "Probably not a problem" wasn't going to cut it. So I wrote a script that samples a million-word corpus for each genre every two years. As long as I was addressing that problem, I figured I would address another one that had been nagging at my conscience. I really ought to be comparing a different wordlist each time I run the comparison. It ought to be the top 5000 words in each pair of corpora that get compared -- not the top 5000 words in the collection as a whole.

The first time I ran the improved version I got a cloud of meaningless dots, and for a moment I thought my whole hypothesis about genre had been produced by a 'loose optical cable.' Not a good moment. But it was a simple error, and once I fixed it I got results that were actually much clearer than my earlier graphs.

I suppose you could argue that, since document size varies across time, it's better to select corpora that have a fixed number of documents rather than a fixed word size. I ran the script that way too, and it produces results that are noisier but still unambiguous. The moral of the story is: it's good to have blog readers who keep you honest and force you to clean up your methodology!]

29 thoughts on “The differentiation of literary and nonliterary diction, 1700-1900.

  1. This is a very interesting start, especially when you ‘project’ this onto a population as an index of their way of thinking about and being in the world. I’ll be interested to see how things develop.

    And, yes, this is more than a one-person job. With any luck it’s an opening that will yield more openings.

  2. Great stuff. I have to read this more carefully. For me, the single strongest point is the increasing similarity between fiction and poetry over the period–that’s really interesting, and answers a number of the initial questions. On the other hand, I have a hard time accepting the conclusion that poetry in 1850 is closer to nonfiction in 1720 than nonfiction in 1850 is–could you gloss that, maybe, if the chart is correct?

    Responsiveness to corpus size, if I’m understanding you right, is a little troubling, because it makes almost all the numbers extremely difficult to compare. (E.g.: Is poetry really farther from nonfiction than fiction is, or is it just a much smaller corpus?). Have you thought about running the comparisons multiple times on corpuses of constant size? And is there anyway to overweight more frequent words? The difference between the 200th most common word and the 100th is a lot more important than the difference between the 4500th and the 3500th.

    • Thanks. Re: the second chart — the one that troubled you — I need to underline the legend at the bottom that says “similarity to the first 40 years of the *same genre*.” I.e., poetry is (slightly) closer to poetry 1700-1740 than nonfiction is to nonfiction 1700-1740. Not that I want to draw many conclusions from that …

      There are lots of ways to overweight more frequent words, and candidly, taken far enough, they do tend to destroy the pattern I’m observing. But I’m tentatively persuaded by Adam Kilgarriff’s arguments about corpus comparison — in the reference I cite above. Basically he suggests that there is no one “right” way to compare corpora. The question of whether you care more about frequent words than you do about less frequent words is going to depend on the conclusion you want to draw. I’m tacitly proposing a distinction between stylometry (which definitely does care more about common words) and comparison of diction (where it’s not clear to me that the same weighting rules need to apply). I admit that there has to be some limit, though, in practice: I don’t think you would want to run comparisons on the whole lexicon.

      The advantage of Spearman’s is that (compared to most other measures of similarity) it’s *pretty* independent of corpus size. But you’re right. Before I can make really firm claims I probably have to run these tests with constant corpus sizes.

      • Awesome, glad it works! Splitting up each component into multiple million word chunks and averaging would probably get even cleaner results, but that doesn’t seem to be necessary.

        Stylometry vs. diction is an interesting distinction; I almost wonder if for humanistic purposes we could argue for just retiring stylometry entirely. The old writing on stylometry is insistent that common words are the best indicators of authorship, but of course Mosteller and Wallace couldn’t look at data with high dimensionality. My recent bigram obsession has me wondering if we can’t often just think of function words as rough indicators of bigrams, which are lower frequency.

        I might try to run some of this on some Bookworm genres if I get some time. The levelling off of distance between fiction and nonfiction after 1850s in the latest graph has me intrigued.

      • Interesting point. I don’t know the history of stylometry well enough to know how much has changed. But I have recently begun to notice empirical results that conflict with things I’ve read. For instance, just as a classroom exercise in a class I’m teaching here, we clustered novels using cosine similarity of the top 1000 words — and it produced very tight authorial groupings. That did make me start to wonder whether the stories about needing to select a short list of common words were really true. Of course the cosine similarity measure does tend to overweight common words in practice, but it doesn’t require that you construct a selected list of function words or anything like that.

        I’ll be fascinated to see what you come up with in Bookworm …

  3. A thought-provoking post, Ted! I wonder, as you briefly suggest, if you’re seeing not the emergence of a “literary diction,” but instead the emergence of “non-literary diction” in genres outside of poetry, fiction, and drama. I work with early C19 newspapers, for instance, in which news, poetry, fiction, and other genres all intersect and collide. When I read these newspapers with students, they will often comment at how “story-like” even news reports are. That is, the diction of early news often “sounds” very similar to the diction of short stories. As journalism professionalizes through the nineteenth century, however, the gap between literary prose and journalistic prose widens–and the inclusion of poetry and fiction within newspapers dwindles.

    • I’m sure that’s a big part of it. We don’t have periodicals in this dataset, but if you look back at early 18c nonfiction books, they’re often extremely colloquial and vivid. By the late 18c prose diction is already becoming more abstract. I’ll have more to say about that in a couple of weeks. But I would frame this as both/and; I think there’s an “official public language” emerging at the same time as a “literary language.” I suspect they both specialize to fill a niche.

  4. We tweeted briefly about this, but just to register the gender issue of the corpus — those volumes available over ECCO are perhaps more complete than those over Worldcat or any other 19th C representation. One of the biggest issues in 19thC digital work is that we have focused primarily on canonical authors rather than forming a complete view of the publishing world. You mentioned that the 19thC corpus skewed male. I’m concerned about this — that it perpetuates the 19thC digital work and essentially will further marginalize those, well, marginal authors (women, working class, etc.). I’d be interested to see the titles culled for the 19thC texts.

    But, that’s my nit-picky gender and book history perspective. This is a massive and wonderful start to this project. Rock on!

  5. Very interesting analysis. I am interested how historians use visualizations to communicate arguments, so I hope you will bear with me if I probe your strategy of presentation a bit.

    The story I get from eyeballing the first three graphs is that the increasing dissimilarity of fiction genres from non-fiction begins ca 1740 and continues at a fairly constant rate until ca 1800. At that point, fiction becomes dissimilar at a much slower rate, while poetry and drama continue to diverge from non-fiction at the same rate until ca 1820, when they too begin to level off. (when the comparison is limited to biographies, the trend lines are similar, except that the rate of divergence begins to grow again ca. 1850). Meanwhile, the vocabularies of all four genres are changing fairly linearly over the course of the century, with fiction, drama, and poetry all showing similar slopes and non-fiction changing more dramatically.

    The trend lines are compelling and require explication. I would have expected that the next step would be to do another set of paired 5-year similarity measures, using fiction as the baseline against which the other three genres were compared rather than non-fiction. I’m not up enough on my statistics to be sure that the graph of dissimilarities for fiction and non-fiction would look identical to what you have in the first graph, but would certainly expect that the lines for drama and poetry to lie closer to 1.0 than that of non-fiction. The key thing to observe in that graph would be if the lines follow a different pattern in relation to fiction than they did in relation to non-fiction. It would be especially interesting for trying to figure out the divergence between fiction and drama/poetry ca. 1800 when compared to non-fiction — which might help get at the impact of Wordsworth’s “poetic diction.”

    • Yes, that’s a very good idea, and I did run a comparison like that with fiction as the baseline. (I ran a whole lot of things not included here for reasons of space.) The lines do follow a different pattern — basically poetry and drama bob and weave a bit inconclusively, while nonfiction diverges dramatically. But I need to rerun that comparison — and a lot of these comparisons — with a fixed corpus size. I’ll probably produce a follow-up post that addresses some of the suggestions I’ve received in the comments.

  6. So many things this post has had me thinking about, despite needing to teach and go to meetings and all the usual weekday stuff. In your remarks about the updated results you say “since document size varies across time, it’s better to select corpora that have a fixed number of documents rather than a fixed word size” — one of the things that struck me in looking at the data you provided was about the possible impact of changing publishing conventions in the 19thc, and how analyses like this might begin to address those changes.

    Like Ryan, I was thinking about periodical publishing, but also about book formats. This is about defining corpora — it looks like in the data file that three-volume novels (and other genres in multi-volumes) are treated as three separate documents. Which I understand makes sense for all kinds of reasons. But if you run results with fixed number of documents, does that account for over-representation of certain authors (and hence their diction) who published in 3 vol format vs those that didn’t?

    • Thanks for commenting — I’m really enjoying the discussion. In the updated results I ran the comparison on corpora with a fixed number of *words*, and actually I think the rationale for holding #-of-words constant is much stronger than the rationale for holding #-of-documents constant. (For basically the reason you point out.) I just wanted to acknowledge that you see broadly the same pattern if you *do* hold #-of-documents constant.

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  14. Fabulous site! Prof. Underwood, I’m interested in narrativity or storyness and how it changed throughout the centuries. It seems to me there are a lot of info and insights helpful for narratologists. Its sheer size is stunning… I wonder if you’re planning to have any book size publication for this. THanks.

    • Thanks! A short answer is “yes”! I do think this is a big topic where there’s a lot more work to be done, and I am planning a book-size publication, though it’ll probably take a couple more years to put together.

  15. Wonderful site you have here but I was curious about if you
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