On different uses of structuralism; or, histories of diction don’t have to tell us anything about “culture” to be useful.

I’ve written several posts now on the way related terms (especially simple physical adjectives) tend to parallel each other in the Google dataset. The names of primary colors rise and fall together. So do “hot” and “cold,” “wet” and “dry,” “thin” and “thick,” “clean” and “dirty,” and the names of the seasons.

clean, dirty, in English Fiction, 1800-2000

clean, dirty, in English Fiction, 1800-2000


These correlations tend to be strongest in the fiction corpus, but most of them hold in other corpora as well. Moreover, all the terms I just mentioned seem to have a minimum value in the early nineteenth century (around 1820) and a maximum around 1940.

Since I’ve listed a lot of binary oppositions, and playfully channeled Lévi-Strauss at the end of an earlier post, it may be time for me to offer a few disclaimers.

The title of the article published in Science was “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books.” But I’m afraid I agree with Matthew Jockers, among others, that in this context the word “culture” is unhelpful. To be fair to the “culturomics” team, it’s an unhelpfully vague word in most other contexts too. Writers often invoke “culture” when they need to connect phenomena without an evident causal connection. The New York Times wedding pages may seem to have nothing to do with Facebook. But all I have to do is characterize them as coordinate expressions of a single “culture of narcissism” and — ta da!

Some of the blame for this habit of argument may rest with structural anthropologists who mapped different kinds of behavior onto each other (kinship relations, language, myth), and characterized them as expressions of the same underlying cultural oppositions. So when I start enumerating oppositions, I should stress that I don’t think the Google dataset proves a structuralist theory of culture, or that we have to assume one in order to use it.

I want to suggest that changes in diction are meaningful phenomena in their own right, and that the task of interpreting them is essentially descriptive. We don’t have to read diction as a symptom of something more abstract like culture. Of course, to say that this is a descriptive task is not to deny that it involves interpretation. Patterns don’t foreground themselves.
thin, thick, in English Fiction, 1800-2000

thin, thick, in English Fiction, 1800-2000


There’s interpretation involved in pairing “thick” and “thin,” just as there is whenever we highlight a pattern in a literary work. But we’re describing a pattern perceptible in the history of diction, not speculating about a hidden cultural agency.

To explain these patterns causally, they may need to be broken into smaller pieces. It’s possible, for instance, that the commonest concrete adjectives became less frequent in the early nineteenth century because they got partly displaced by Latinate near-synonyms, but became infrequent in the late twentieth century for a completely different reason — say, because adjectives in general became less common in prose. (I’m just speculating here.) Genres will also need to be distinguished. It seems likely that concrete adjectives peak around 1940 partly because modernist novels explore the hot, wet phenomenology of life, and partly because pulpy sci-fi stories describe the hot, wet jungles of Venus.
wet, dry, in English Fiction, 1800-2000

wet, dry, in English Fiction, 1800-2000


The relative contributions of different genres will need to be disentangled before we really understand what happened, and Google unfortunately is not going to do much to help us there.

All this is to say that I’m not offering an explanation when I mention structuralism. I certainly don’t mean to invoke “culture” as an explanation for these patterns. It will be far more interesting to understand them, eventually, as consequences of specific generic and stylistic shifts.

I mention structuralism only as a (very loose!) metaphor for one way of extracting literary significance from the history of diction. Right now a lot of humanists have the impression that this sort of interpretation would have to rely on sympathetic magic: the fact that the word “sentimental” peaked around 1930 would only interest us if we could assume that this somehow made the Thirties the most sentimental decade of all time. (Kirstin Wilcox pointed me to the history of “sentimental,” btw.)

Focusing on sets of antonyms has the advantage of ruling out this sort of sympathetic magic. The world can’t have become at once thinner and thicker, wetter and drier, in the early 20th century. When both parts of an opposition change in correlated ways, the explanation required is clearly stylistic. To put this another way, wet/dry and thin/thick are connected not by a mysterious black box called “culture” but by the patterns of selection writers had to learn in order to reproduce a historically specific style.

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